“There is no death in this wood, there is only permanence…”
Backtrack and Forestep
Suffocating. Pulverizing. The weight of the lost, damned, and otherwise is all around him, pinning him down on a hard bed of dusted corpses, filling his mouth, his nose, his ears, the silence of it all, the kitchen after a screaming match, the classroom after the teacher breaks character, the church after the last Sister dies of exposure.
They’re going to die.
‘They’re already dead.
‘We’re all gone already, Hoots. You know we all died the moment you left us here, right? You must know you forsook us the moment you smoked that joint with Letty.’
Howie tries to snap himself out of it but his mouth is full of ash. His nose is full of ash. His eyes are closed and he’s lost in a gritty, stinging darkness, like sleep paralysis had reached into this frozen chunk of exiled time from the lovely past where such physiological enigmas were a thing one could afford to waste fear on and locked its wooden clawed fingers around Howie’s body and trapped him here under the collector of the due one must pay to traverse the ashen wood. Howie begins to convulse. Feet flutter, outstretched arms bat at the perpetual sandbags holding them down. There’s not much air left.
No, not much air left at all.
Not much time, either.
Howie’s struggling at full capacity, anybody looking at him would instantly call 911, get him an ambulance he can’t afford and get him some help, the help he deserves and clearly needs, look at the man! He’s having a seizure, his brain’s suffered an aneurysm, he’s in a bad way and he needs help!
A great weight is banished from Howie’s hands. His elbows leave the ground shortly after.
Black clouds everywhere, blacker than the inside of his eyelids.
‘Something opening up…’
Putrid gray globs fall from Howie’s screaming mouth, but the screaming is not vocal. The screaming is as silent as the world in which Howie punches and kicks just to fend off a slow and excruciating death unfit for ‘man nor beast nor anything in between; the screaming is pain, the acidic, burning pain as saliva and powdery devastation mix into a scalding, horrible paste that bites and chews deeper into Howie’s flesh with every second that passes, with every little air bubble that pops as the brew sizzles and burns his mouth and esophagus raw.
‘…a portal, I can see a portal…’
He can’t open his eyes, not yet. He’s got his torso off the ground, Hoots is back on his knees but he still can’t open his eyes, not yet, it’s just not safe yet. Just not safe.
‘…there’s things on the other side, it’s so… it’s so black. They’re not though…’
The air is still, like death. Howie “Hoots” McGee flings himself coughing and gagging free from the ashen wood, landing in a sprawl and crawling aimlessly about back and forth through the trenches he dug on his way here.
‘…it’s all pinks and purples, all lines… they’re made of electricity, they–’
Howie’s hand bashes into his backpack, cutting off his visions of aether and sailing him back to the present moment. He rips off his hoodie, using it to clear a big gap in the middle of the road – he thinks it’s a circle but he cannot possibly tell with his eyelids closed – around his backpack. He kneels down, fumbles around until he gets a zipper open, withdraws and opens a bottle of water so savagely he tears the top layer of skin off the underbelly of his left thumb, and goes about wasting damn near the entire bottle by dumping the water on his face, grinning with rapturous glee as the quickly blackening water runs down his figure and soaks into his filthy clothing. Howie tilts the bottle back, shakes it a bit, then squeezes what’s left of the water directly into his eyes, the lids of which he flutters like a butterfly’s wings.
The burning is a branding iron pressed into flesh that was numbed with ice beforehand, a kind of pain which exists in the center of a numb vacuum of feeling; for some it makes the experience more bearable, for others it just magnifies it. For Howie, well, it’ll have to end eventually. Everything does.
It starts with an R and it ends with an E.
A few minutes go by before Howie catches his breath and opens his eyes. He didn’t make a circle, but it’s a large enough clearing. He could lay down and roll around a little bit if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. The banks of ash on the sides would be good cover from incoming gunfire, too, if it was dirt instead of weightless, soundless ash, but it’s not. Howie would really be looking forward to going home to his pitiful joke of an apartment if the fucking world didn’t end overnight.
But it did.
“All right,” he reasons, “enough. That’s enough, man, time to cut the shit.”
Cannonball Road, the ashen wood, Stickup Bend off in the near distance, nothing makes a sound. No answer comes in any way.
“See? My point exactly,” as he forces himself to stand up before bending over to dig for another water bottle, thus stretching his back in the process. “Out here waiting for the Universe to answer me. Game’s fuckin’ over, Jack, the fat lady sung. Rogan gave his last interview, it was with an actual chimpanzee. Laughs were had all around.” Howie cracks the plastic cap and dirties a mouthful of clean water before spitting it into the ash outside his little clearing. The tainted water obliterates the airy covering, leaving a massive black fissure in the shape of a splatter. “There’s pot at home, okay? Remember that. It was in the safe with Roscoe. That’s why you have all these joints. This ain’t even your pot, Jack.” He takes the joint out of his hoodie pocket and looks it over a few times. “Nah, this ain’t even mine. My pot’s better, that’s why I put it in the safe. The safe is fireproof, to preserve the good stuff until I need it.”
Howie looks up at the blinding sky until it pains him to do so.
“Boy, do I really need it…”
All around Howie the surroundings fade out in detail until they morph into that omnipotent gray miasma on the horizon, the one guarantee on this journey.
“The real world,” he reminds himself. “The real world is gone, lost in the dust storm.” He breaths through the clogged filter that is his nose. “Lost in the ashes. Only I remain in this pocket of visibility, it follows me wherever I go.” Another mouthful of dirty water, but he swallows it this time. His guts are full of ashes anyway, might as well give ‘em something to work with. “I am The Last Stand of Civilization.”
Howie barks a short laugh. “I am the Sisters Three of Saint Wuester’s Church.”
Silence stares into Howie’s soul. Nothing stares back. He takes a deep breath.
“Okay, let’s stop. Let’s backtrack and forestep here, let’s just… I didn’t die. Okay?” he asks the silenced death lingering around him in ashen shackles. “I could have suffocated under the ashes, but I survived. I could have been part of the ashes, but I slept in the church. Yahn’s pissy attitude saved me. Now I get to repay the favor and save him. It’s so savory, babe, so sick with the savings, ladies’n’germs, that I might need to clip myself a coupon.”
Hoots wishes he would hear disembodied laughter or a voice in his head or something. Anything. The sound of his own voice is getting tired faster than Howie himself is, and How is Goddamn fucking exhausted.
“So, let’s recap. Backtrack: I made it out of the woods, I just have to take the streets home. No big deal. We out here, we’re good. Forestep: I’m going to make it home and Yahn is going to be there. So is Roscoe. Roscoe and the stash are waiting for me in the safe. Yahn and I are going to evict the landlord and everything’s going to be swell.”
Blissful white noise as Howie drops the partial water bottle into the backpack. Zips it. Slings it onto his back.
“Nobody left to stand in my way. It’s just me and you, Yahn. It’s only us left.”
Tightens the straps.
“And I know a great place we can go.”
Starts to walk.
Hello Commons, this has been the fourth 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~