“…this kingdom of ash, this place so familiar…”
A Hole in the Floor
Something Howie’s never been very good at is coming to grips in the moment with whatever his current situation is during that particular moment. He’s not one to read a room, Howie “Hoots” McGee, but he has been known to light a room. As toxic as his numbered relationships with other humans are, as helplessly addicted to marijuana as he is, as brazenly petty towards his family he acted when he had family to act petty around, Howie “Hoots” McGee is one entertaining son of a bitch – one talented bastard’s wench, if he decided to wake up as a woman one day like he did a demi-pansexual – and he can distract just about anybody from just about anything that might be on their mind, no matter how pressing the matter may be.
From a very young age Howie knew that folks from all walks of life, no matter how divided the times got, no matter how much they hated one another because of skin color, wealth, occupation, or lifestyle, no matter what was mixed into the mortar of the brick walls between them, Howie knew that at the end of the day, all human beings would be able to come together and agree on one thing: that other human beings are straight nuts. Coo-coo, loco, batshit crazy. Howie doesn’t just understand this, he has this golden rule of life on Earth internalized, it’s as much part of his DNA as the gene that made him lose half his hair by… however old he is now that there’s nobody left to keep track of his age. There’s nobody–
The apartment is dark and featureless. The blinds are still drawn from last night and the only light coming in does so through the door, the very door which will never close again.
“Because I demo’ed it,” Howie tells himself, more as a distraction than anything else. “I broke it down it with a limp kick…”
Howie looks back over his shoulder to confirm that nobody had come up the stairs behind him. Howie would love it if somebody had crept up the stairs behind him right now. Even if they jumped him. Even if they killed him.
Jhan pulled the blinds down last night before Howie left… or maybe Howie was the one who pulled the blinds. He was at the party… well, it was less of a party and more like the pot version of a trap house, but semantics don’t matter when the world is turned to ash; Howie was at the pot house last night and then he stumbled home alone. Wasn’t alone when he got home though, oh no, there was some little twi–
Another piece of the rickety stairwell falls down, this one unprovoked. Howie looks backwards fearfully.
“Was that a sign, God?”
God answers with silence. Nothing more.
“I made him wait, I know. I often do. Why did I hear a noise when I said as much?”
More of the same.
“I went down to the pot house and let Yahn wait for me on my doorstep for a few hours, so what? I always do that. What, is that part of the problem?”
The ruined ashscape that is Vhykus Path looks up at Howie from both sides of the bend. To the ashes Howie looks lost, tired, thirsty, famished to the point where his body feels full. He looks out of sorts, like he finally made his way back home from a foreign country from which he should have returned by his own accord weeks ago.
“Am I th–… was I the biggest problem in my life, God? Real talk, now that it’s just You and me. Back when I had a life, before You took it away! Is that what You’re telling me, God? Am I the real problem out here in this fucking wasteland of fucking ash You left for me?!”
Howie stomps his booted foot. The charcoal staircase trembles beneath him, raining broken bits and pieces of torched lumber, disintegrating charcoal, rusty nails and fittings. Howie grabs on to the railing for dear life and to his dismay it snaps clear off the side of the apartment. He lets the burned hunk drop into the rapidly deteriorating ocean of ash below him, then shrieks deeply as chunks of the homemade landing give out beneath his feet like the crumbling boards of a rotted rope bridge. The roasted floor of his apartment sags under his weight when Howie lands on his stomach, coughing up a storm of ashes and burnt carpet fragments for him to breathe, but it doesn’t collapse and bring him down to the ground in a fury of cold embers and black dust like the stairwell just tried to, so… he’s thankful. Thankful to himself, that is, and only to himself, for thinking to leap.
With quivering arms Howie lifts himself to a kneel like a devout believer would to properly pray to their God. But Howie… Howie has no God. Not anymore.
His studio apartment up in this annexed dormer was never very spacious, and like all of Howie’s past living arrangements, it was never quite good enough to be what Howie wanted in a living space. When Jhan told Howie he had found him a new place to live he wasn’t expecting anything special, but yet he was still disappointed, and as a bonus, Howie’s landlord had only made life harder for Howie since he became part of Hoots’s life.
‘Kind of like Johannes.’
“How in Hell did we meet in the first place…?” Howie asks himself incoherently as we weeps on his knees for his fallen studio apartment. “I don’t even remember,” as he smears snot into the charcoal and ash on his arm. “He was always there, though. Always there for me when I needed him. Always…”
Howie lifts one leg and stands it on a foot.
“Always there to make sure I did the right thing, to make sure I didn’t end up sleepin’ on the street unless he sent me there himself.”
Howie leans forward and braces himself to stand up. He can feel his hands collapse the frail ashen shell of the burned carpet as he lowers his weight into it, it’s like stepping in snow that’s been given a few days to freeze: it looks solid, feels sturdy enough to stand on when you first lay your weight on it, then everything gets a couple inches taller and your ankles are suddenly covered in gashes from the frozen bite of Jack Frost’s jagged maw. Everything around him creaks with the rage of abandon as Howie stands up and attempts to master the ancient art of balance.
“This is going to collapse,” Howie says to himself. “It was coming down whether I walked inside it or not, and now I’m in here.” He looks left into the sooty blackness, right into the sooty blackness. It seems that a firestorm blew through, everything looks like it was thrown into a microwave and left to blacken until it began to…
“It’s just all black. But the blinds are still intact.”
The blinds blocking the front-facing window stare back at Howie from the wall to his right, defined only by what little light peeks in around them. The other blinds are like this, too. Everything else is black.
“How is the carpet burned but the blinds still intact?”
Insignificantly small bits of ceiling detach with each step the intruder takes, scattering soot like dropped flour across the reflective surface of Howie’s scalp. He doesn’t notice; what he does notice is that, while it’s always felt like walking on eggshells in this apartment (especially whenever Jhan was around), the quip has never once felt more fitting (nor dire) than it feels right now: back when life was solid the sound of the eggshells cracking would wake the landlord and Howie would get an earful; now the sound of eggshells cracking will be the house coming down on top of him.
The house (and the dormer up on top) has a wooden foundation; the walls are primarily sheetrock, that’s all well and good, but the walls are primarily crumbled, too, and heavy, which ain’t so well and good. The foundation is lumber held together with construction glue and nails. The glue is evaporated, that much is a guarantee, and the foundation itself is evidently weak enough to moan and groan under Howie’s–
–weight, yet strong enough to support that weight rather than folding outright and burying him in the wreckage of his pathetic stint in Wuester, but there’s no telling how long that will last. The nails are probably the only thing keeping Howie on the somewhat stable footing he has, but they’re punched through charcoal now, and charcoal isn’t tight like real wood is. Charcoal’s got give, charcoal crumbles, charcoal… charcoal burns. Nails melt, but only if they get hot enough, and partner, if jet fuel don’t melt metal then Rapture fire sure as shit ain’t go’n’a do it.
“Rapture,” Howie whispers as he comes within arm’s reach of the window. “Maybe it really happened, maybe all the fruityloops were right. Maybe God came to save they who deserved it and a whole lot more of us deserved it than w–… than I thought was likely.” One finger limply extended, Howie reaches out to touch the blind. His finger pokes through it without resistance. The blind crumbles around the hole he made until the entire thing is dust in the lapse of wind blowing through the broken window it once concealed. He sighs. “Well at least I have some more light in here now.”
A plan comes to form in Howie’s head. “That’s what I’ll do, yeah. Fumbling around the apartment in the dark don’t make any sense, especially when… the floor might… y’know… collapse…” Another long sigh, this one spewing anxiety. “Ohh Lord, what have You done to us? What have You done? ” Howie “Hoots” McGee begins to weep again; being here really brings the apocalypse home to him, it truly is the end of days. No, not even that; the end of days has passed. Earth requested the hard reset and that’s just what it got, now all it needs to do is boot back up. “And we’re left here in the meantime… just me and the Sisters. And Yahn. You’re here too, lover. I know you are.”
The torched studio apartment doesn’t say a word.
“Oh yeah, you’re here Yahn,” as Hoots begins creeping along the wall towards the next window, the one which would be covered by the headboard if Howie didn’t have a shitty twin-size trundle bed he’ll never sleep on again. “You’re just waiting for the right time to come out, is all. So you can get a rise out of me like you love to.” His knee bumps the bed, siphoning Howie’s worries about having to climb on it to reach the window – he merely punched a hole into it like a poker stick through a burnt pizza box. Hardly even felt his knee go through. Definitely felt his shin hit the warped, gangly bottom bedframe, but that’s… whatever.
Haunted white light floods into the stu’ through the widow as the blind crumbles away. Howie notices what appears to be holes in the bed under the window, ‘Where the glass fell in after the window broke,’ but otherwise the mattress still has its shape.
“So you didn’t die in bed, Jhan,” Howie tells Yahn’s presence, which he cannot feel in this apartment. Which he hasn’t felt since before he woke up to Armageddon. “That’s… somehow not very comforting.”
Refusing to look towards the center of the apartment, Howie walks through the rest of the bed and steps lightly around the perimeter. The third blind crumbles, setting free the unrestrained glare of the sky.
There, the door’s unlocked and the blinds are back up, about as much light is leaking into this studio apartment of the damned as there’s go’n’a be, but still he won’t look at the middle of the room. If he knows anything about Jhan – and you best believe Howie knows a thing or two about that beautiful little twink – he knows the man was probably playing a game of chess against himself when the big conflagration came. He was probably sitting with no chair at the street sign table, legs crossed beneath him, a puss on his face, a squint in one eye, carefully picking up one clay chess piece, lifting it above the board, putting it back down in the exact same position and rubbing his chin with his hand, and his hand is all curled up like it was gripping an ice cream cone or–
“Or my dick,” Howie says aloud to the apartment. “His hand was curled around nothing but the nothing was the same exact girth as my dick. And he’d rub my invisible dick against his chin and pick up the chess pieces and put them down over and over and over, and then he’d go have a drink, probably a whiskey sour because he had a drinking problem he liked to project onto me as a drug problem in general even though he never once saw me taking any fucking drugs aside from pot because I love pot, pot is good enough for me, I don’t need three beers and something harder to chase them down with. I don’t feel the need to occasionally leave empty flasks on my boyfriend’s nightstand so he worries about me, I don’t get the urge to buy a bottle fridge and only plug it in when I think Howie’s not coming over because I don’t want him to see it, I don’t need to… I don’t need to do this.”
Howie looks out the window and sees ash. There’s no world underneath, no forest, no nothing… not anymore. It’s ash, it’s all just ash and it’s never going to be right again. It’s all left from here on out, ladies’n’germs. It’s all gone.
“I don’t need to do this to myself,” he says again, his back hunched up, his chin reaching for his soft, plushy chest. “I can be honest about it, I didn’t really like him. I never liked the sex, I never liked how cold his hands and feet always were.” Howie sniffles loudly and ignores the burning he feels in the port between his mouth and his sinuses. “He was always rude to me because he thought it was cute. He thought being a little brat was adorable, but it wasn’t. It was Goddamn fucking annoying is what it was. Maybe this is all a good thing, Janny boy. We’re both free now.”
Howie, his tears flowing so fluidly as to break streaks of burning red through the black soot of home dusted on his face, begins to turn around
“Y’understand me? We’re both free now, free of each other. You’re free to fight with yourself over how perfect you’ll never be all the time now, Jan. You’re free to eat as much food as you want without having to look at me and be afraid of what you might become, you’re free to go back home with your man-hating family who deserves to be deported for threatening to deport you for bringing me into their home, you’re free to spread your wings like you always wanted to and get out of this backwoods shitstain of a town where the only thing to do is take drugs and wander around in the woods talking your shit about your neighbors until the bars open. You’re free to live your life away from the Goddamned junkie that I am, Yahn, and me? I’m free, too. I’m free to smoke, joke, and be merry, I’m free to no longer force myself to see the whole world as pessimistically as I possibly can just to approach your level, I’m free to not suck a dirty twink’s filthy, disgusting dick ever again in my life! I’m free to wander aimlessly through the ashes of a burnt world all by myself, I don’t have to bundle up to protect myself from the cold winter winds of January anymore, Johannes! I’m fr–”
Keeping his eyes closed as he exorcised the demons Jhan possessed him with, Howie then opened his eyes to the center of the apartment and immediately lost track of what he was saying. He couldn’t see it before the blinds were opened as the entire space appeared as a borderless black miasma, a more literal than Howie will ever admit portal leading to Hell, but now there’s light in the shifting blackened dormer and…
“There’s a hole in the floor.”
With the glimmering white light lilting through the window Howie can now see the gaping hole in the center of the floor where the street sign table – and the old zebra recliner, too, if God still holds sway over the events of this world – fell through into the landlord’s bungalow below. He’s been walking on the edge of death this whole time and he never even knew it, one wrong step and Howie would have found Jhan after all, he would found all the good folks who went off to Rapture and he would have joined in on their salvation and…
And that would have been it.
Howie clears his throat and spits it into the gape. He hears the chunky snot splatter against something down below, but he doesn’t see what it hits. He doesn’t even look, staring directly into the hole will give him vertigo if he lets it, and that’s the last thing Howie “Hoots” McGee needs right now.
“Only thing I need is a smoke right now,” he reminds himself. Then, with more excitement than a toddler with a sugar high, Howie reminds himself why he came back to the apartment in the first place. Why he really came back. “Roscoe, the stash!”
A dusting of charcoal follows the aggravated roar of the burned structure unsettling at the sound of his voice, taking the skip out of Howie’s step and incinerating it, letting the ashes blow out the window on windless air so they may join in the toil of the rest of the world.
“All right, relax. We can still get out of this with some pot, all is not lost. The world might not have ended just yet.” He thinks about this for a moment, then closes his eyes and empties the thought out of his head. “No more words. Only action.”
Howie stands still as a statue for a full minute, then steps lightly towards the bathroom. It’s not a far walk – ten paces can bring you from one side of the room to the other no matter where you’re standing, even if you’re not circumnavigating a gaping crater – and Howie sees first that the door to the bathroom where the safe is waiting underneath the sink no longer has a knob. You’d think that would make opening the door easier, but no. That door might be the only thing supporting the doorframe, which might be the only thing supporting the dormer’s roof, as well as this dangerous new lifestyle Howie woke up to this morning.
“Same could have been true of the front door, though,” Howie reminds himself. “Kicked that fucker in without even thinking about it and everything was fine.”
‘Oh yeah, everything’s real fine. Just fine and dandy, Hootsie Babey! Fine and fuckin’ dandy!!’
But the front door was part of the outer wall whereas the bathroom door is somewhat closer to the middle of the dormer. Howie doubts that it’s loadbearing, but taking such a risk whilst standing in a house of cards made of cards that were set on fire is not what Howie is about, no matter what his new life is like.
“The safe was metal, just like the street sign table and the recliner… on the inside. Those both fell through the floor into the house proper, so the safe probably did too.”
Howie looks about the room and can no longer ignore just how much everything is moving around. It’s not as though his surroundings are breathing, no, it’s closer to writhing; the apartment is likely being held up more by an act of God than by simple physics and engineering at this point, and as evidenced by the state of the rest of the world, God Almighty’s getting pretty tired of holding shit together.
‘Especially for you, Hootsie Bab–’
“I need to get the fuck out of here,” Howie says gravely to himself, perhaps realizing it for the first time. He looks at the hole in the floor again. “The table fell through so the safe should have too.” He takes a shaky step towards the front door. Looks at the hole. “So Yahn should have too… God fucking damnit.” He takes another step towards the door. “The safe fell through so Yahn should have too.” Another step.
“God damn it all.”
Hello Commons, this has been the first subchapter of the third 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~