“…this kingdom of ash, this place so familiar…”
Another Handful of Dirt
Weak ash gives way to hard dirt with no tactile feedback. Howie’s fingers dig in, the fingers he shredded pawing at the wreckage of the stairwell. His ragged flesh screams back in protest. He ignores it like a good governing body and with great effort pulls himself forward, keeping his right leg bent at the knee, the toes just a few hairs above the cleared ground.
Everything is still foggy. Crawling is subconscious, it’s simply happening. The feeling is beginning to return to Howie’s limbs. It’s coming back in the opposite way he thought it would, though. His core is comfortably numb. On the outside, all he knows is Pain. The sky isn’t very bright anymore.
It’s almost night now, just a few more minutes. Just a few more handfuls of dirt.
“I can remember…” Howie reminds himself between shallow, exhausted breaths. “…I can remember–
–the rubble, a lot of it on me. More of it under me. I–
–got a foot free first, my good foot.” Howie lamely taps the toe of his left boot against the ground. “It was the right one that–
‘waved, it beckoned me towards them’
–got fucked up after all. I couldn’t–
–tell which one it was. Damnit!” he shouts weakly, punching the ground for emphasis. “What is happening? Howard, snap the fuck out of it! Pull yourself together you fucking asshole, come on now!” He draws a few clogged breaths. “I need a fuckin’ smoke, ‘man.” Propping himself up on both hands, Howie shouts, “All I want is a Goddamn smoke, ‘man! ” and falls back to the ground, defeated.
Ashes tickle what little hair still grows in his nostrils. He doesn’t bother opening his eyes.
Another handful of dirt, another few inches gained.
Another handful of dirt, another scream of mute pain.
Another handful of di–… “That’s not dirt, whah–”
Ten short years ago, a bright young man once called Johannes with a last name that did not officially exist in any government records even before Armageddon fell unto Earth was sitting at the writing desk in the corner of his college dormitory. It was a single dorm, not meant to be shared between humans for more than short time, and it suited Johannes rather well; he didn’t get along too well with most other folks, he was told he comes off as particularly abrasive, and he couldn’t help but agree. In his mind, Johannes just didn’t tolerate bullshit, not from himself and especially not from the likes of you, so don’t bring it in his face and he won’t feel the need to remove it from view, capiche?
The school was in Massachusetts – or Connecticut? Delaware? Maryland? It may even have been in Maine, Johannes was never made to familiarize himself with America’s forty-something mainland states nor the word contiguous which is usually used to describe them – near a harbor on the Atlantic Ocean. Johannes was studying to be a marine biologist on request from his father, once a diplomat of a nonspecific European country and now resting amongst the ashes beneath the ashes of Rapture; after finishing reading a paragraph about testing water turbidity from his textbook, Johannes decided to order himself a pizza as an early job-well-done. The test was tomorrow and he only had one section left to read, and if a question about the designer of the black and white disk that’s commonly used to test water turbidity (he thinks it’s used to test water turbidity, water has a whole lot of qualities. It’s an entry-level class, Johannes isn’t set on the major quite yet), well, that would just be a sign that marine biology isn’t the major for him.
Twenty-six minutes later, Johannes is called down into the lobby by the administrator stuck working at the welcome desk of the dormitory to grab his pizza, a half pepperoni and half buffalo chicken. The elevator doors open but he doesn’t walk out at first, he simply stares at the pizza guy, the sight of the man’s hair alone dropping Johannes’s jaw into a dangle one foot above the carpet.
The pizza guy was Howie, who was still aspiring to become the next big stand-up pot comic he’s lost so much hair over becoming today, and he hadn’t yet lost his hair back then. He was named Howard, too, and he hadn’t put on his gut, he still worked out. And he smoked pot more as a hobby than as a lifestyle, so when Johannes (feeling that perhaps love might occur at first sight to folks like him after all, especially when the object of that sight is so handsome) invited Howard back up to his dorm to get his money (clumsy Johannes, he left his wallet in the dorm! Silly freshman Johannes), and Howard didn’t walk into a brick wall composed of herbstink when he stepped into the dorm, and so he commented on it, which led to him passing on a little story to Johannas, one told to Howard by his grandfather a long time ago, one that ingrained its roots into Johannes’s head simply because he let it alone to work its magic. They became fast friends, in the words of Johannes to his father when he was asked about the greasy long-haired gentleman who kept showing up in the dorm’s security camera footage, and Howard started spending his nights at Johannes’s long before he even considered the fact that Johannes was trying to get him into bed.
That did happen, though. Eventually. A lot of pot was involved – Johannes was the kind of guy who could get a guy like Howard a lot of pot, the kind of pot that comes in briefcases, Jack, y’understand me here ladies’n’germs? Y’understand me?
Johannes started managing Howard’s life right from the start, and part of Howard knew it. Part of Howard also knew that Johannes was the kind of guy who could get a guy like Howard the kind of pot that comes packed in briefcases, and that’s a guy whose good side a guy like Howard should keep himself safely inside of, no matter what the cost. No, Howard never put too much thought into his sexuality, he just likes the way it feels when a certain part of his body is caressed. No, he never thought about gender being a construct of human thought (and therefore not real) and sex as a fork in a road that joins back together again by the time it ends. No, he wouldn’t necessarily dislike if maybe Johanne– no, it’s Jhan now, babey, like yawn with a yah, now say yaaahhhhh for me, and Howie did say yaaahhhhh for him. And it was one of the better yaaahhhhhs of his life, but it involved a lot of briefcase pot and a lot moreprodding for Howie to say that yaaahhhhh for Jhan. Prodding was something Jhan was good at, that’s how he got himself and Howie moved into Wuester in the first place. He prodded his father into paying off the college so he could get his degree, paying off a lab so he could get his job, and paying of a specific group of researcher’s assistants who suffered through a specific series of events which, whenever they’re brought up, Johan–… Jhan would always change the subject and veer away from. He then prodded his father into paying to get his name legally changed from Johannes to Jahn (pronounced Yahn) and also paying to change Howie’s name from Howard Joseph Plackarn to Howie “Hoots” McGee to pursue his dream of stand-up pot comedy on a more distinguished level. What’s more, he even prodded his father into buying the largest house in all of Wuester, renovating it, installing a massive addition on top of the renovations, and moving the whole family there from Europe so he wouldn’t have to live with Howie in Howie’s shitty little studio apartment that Jahn picked out when Jhan’s father made Jhan kick Howie out onto the streets. But Jhan would occasionally pop by and spend the night, or have dinner, or just smoke pot with Howie until Howie loosened up enough for his pants to fall down all on their own, and it was nice. Jhan didn’t need a job because his father understood that he was a liability to the state and thus kept him financially handled, and Howie just barely scraped by with what little money he was paid to sweep up at bars around town. Sometimes the bartenders would let Howie do a five-minute stand-up set as a bonus, but only if he cleaned the bathrooms out first. He could keep any tips he got, too, and he occasionally did get some. Not enough for food shopping, but enough for ice cream after dinner. Enough for a walk with Jhan to the dollar shop. It was nice. Howie never quite got used to the sex, and Jhan was painfully aware of this, but it was nice. Howie even got approached about performing a twenty-minute special, which he wrote and delivered in front of a crowd of twenty-two home-bred Central Wuester local yokels in a bar right on Cannonball Road. Howie was doing it, he was following his stand-up dream and things were really starting to happen for him, and Jhan felt like the happiest man in the world to be able to watch that happen.
But then Howie started hanging out with the Central Wuester folks. Then things were different.
He had always smoked his pot, Howie “Hoots” McGee, even back when his name was Howard Joseph Plackarn, but his habit changed the day he started coming home saying Shoo’buck and addressing Jhan by whistling and at shouting Ay cuz, ‘me’re boi! Jhan never left his father’s house much if he wasn’t going to spend some time with Howie, but when he did he would always eavesdrop on as many random conversations as he possibly could to get a finger on the town’s pulse without it knowing he was there. He never once heard a good thing about those Central Wuester hooligans, they were always stealin’ and breakin’ and humpin’ around town with whomever they could, one old woman even described them as a disease once, and Howie caught the disease. Howie kept staying out all hours of the night, even when he made plans with Jhan. Even when Jhan was invited to Howie’s apartment specifically so they could hang one out! Jhan showed up to an empty studio shithouse taped to the roof of a shitty bungalow time and time again and he was made to sit there waiting for hours, long into the night before who but Howie “Hoots” McGee finally showed up reeking of skunk and something else, it definitely wasn’t just pot he was smoking down in the center of town, not good pot, at least, not the briefcased stuff Jhan gets him from Europe, and Howie had the nerve to not so much as acknowledge Jhan as he stumbled up the stairway and staggered into the apartment without turning on the lights. So Jhan followed Howie in and said let there be light and watched the big bald oaf fling himself onto the bed and knock out just like that, before his very eyes, so our Jhan, who was wearing shorts at the time because it was warm when Howie first invited him over even though it was freezing now, stood up on the twin bed and kicked Howie in the blubbery gut over and over until he woke up.
Then Howie caught Jhan’s foot. Then Howie threw Jhan off the bed.
And Jhan deserved it, he knew he deserved it, doubt God but do not doubt that Jhan was acutely aware of the fact that he deserved to be flipped off of Howie’s bed, he deserved it just as much as Howie deserved to get kicked awake for inviting his boyfriend over and then deciding to disappear for hours and come back loaded up on pot and demanding his pipe so he could smoke more! You deserve it, I deserve every bit of it, every last ounce of strength to watch Howie stumble out that door but he had to get kicked out, he needed to stop going off and getting high with Central Wuester folk, “Them Central Wuester folk smoke spice, Howie! What you doin’ hangin’ around with them?” so he can focus on his work! You can’t stop watering the seeds in your garden just because the first leaf broke its head through the soil, you need to keep on it no matter how green the grass grows! And that’s just what Jhan was going to tell Howie the next morning when he came crawling home, or better yet, it’s what he’ll tell him any minute now.
“He’s going to come back,” Jhan likely told himself as he sat on the foot of Howie’s bed with his arms folded as tightly as he could fold them. “I’ve kicked him out before and I’ll kick him out again, but he’s going to come back tonight. Why wouldn’t he? He never has before so why wouldn’t he tonight of all nights, on Armageddon Eve? That asshole, this is all his fault, I’m just going to go home and cry about it to my father in our big stupid mansion.”
And Jhan probably got up, maybe spat on the floor a couple times for shiggles, then he grabbed the doorknob–
‘hot it’s so hot why is everything so hot’
–and turned it and let himself out on the steps–
‘its worse out there, so hot, why is everything so hot’
–the stairs, coming to a–
‘wet splattering why’
–pause at the bottom of the stairs before–
‘crawling, get away, its everywhere, have to bury’
–walking briskly into the night towards wherever he told the driver to park his dad’s smallest limousine, got in, and got driven down past Atacama Lake on the other side of town to his father’s mansion. The addition came in on truckbeds, for Christ’s sake, it’s about the farthest thing from elegant and graceful as a mansion can get, and it’s hardly even in the town of Wuester, they had to buy a splotch of property from the neighboring town to let Jhan’s father renovate the house in the first place, it’s unbelievable, but that’s just how it is in small towns like Wuester, word travels faster than a bullet and money’s always shootin’ the gun, Jack. Money’s always shootin’ that gun.
Jhan managed to crawl about ten yards away from the house before the skin started to rub off his stomach from the friction caused by his shirt, but realistically, he knew he was going to die long before that. He made peace with it, apologized for what he didn’t say and expressed regret for what he did, then he died as the temperature got hotter and hotter and hotter around him. When the holocaust abruptly dissipated later in the early morning, the lifeless husk of the world was left to be found by those who may have survived, if any did. Most didn’t, though. Like Jhan, most were cooked until they combusted, then they burned all the way through. It all happened so fast that most of them were scorched where they stood and left standing as statues, black mannequins of ash with limbs that break off and crumble when they’re moved. Sometimes they even crumble when they’re not moved, and sometimes they stay in their shape even under the weight of external pressure.
Like Jhan’s arm, for instance. Howie’s shredded hand fell perfectly upon and closed around the charred, ashy shell of Jhan’s left forearm as he crawled away from the wreckage he has no memory of freeing himself from. The shell broke quickly after, of course, and Howie could just barely feel the shape of bone before his hand fell through that too and landed flat on the scorched earth.
The ashen remains of the Raptured usually break off in pieces if they’re moved, but sometimes pieces break off even if they’re not moved. Sometimes, like in the case of Jhan, they’re wetted by tears and beaten into a muck by bloody fists until not even the nondescript shape of the human form remains. Jhan’s case is rare, as not many who burned have a Howie out there looking for them, but then again not many survivors have a Jhan to go out there and look for. Some survivors are grateful just to have a name by which to call themselves, and some are fortunate enough to feel fortunate for having a place to rest when it gets cold at night. Howie is one of the latters, Howie has a place to rest for tonight. He doesn’t have a blanket and he’ll be cold until he isn’t anymore, but at least he has place to rest tonight.
Another handful of dirt, another scream of mute pain.
As the last shred of daylight is withdrawn into the thickening clouds, Howie “Hoots” McGee falls painfully into sleep amongst the dusted remains of a bright young man once called Johannes.
Hello Commons, this has been the fifth 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~