Two weeks, no posts. Sorry about that. I’ve been working on this particular story for some time now, never quite getting it to the point where I felt comfortable publishing it or in this case, sharing it with others. To paraphrase Hamlet, the ending is the thing, one which I haven’t been able to master yet. Honestly, most felt either unoriginal, confusing, or just plain weak, and after sixteen different iterations (sad, isn’t it?) I think I’ve found one that works.
Maybe . . .
The blood dripped freely from Paul’s arm as he shuffled into the kitchen. The cut had not been deep. Only a mere scratch, but he had tripped coming out from the forest, aggravating it. The bandages – if you could call them that – a few medicinal leaves stuffed into the cut, held in place by a few torn strips from Solomon’s bed, swelled with the reddish-brown hue of dried blood. It was all that could be spared so Paul did not complain. At the least the throbbing had subsided, now only a slow waltz; his fall among the roots and trees had inflamed the pain into a tarantella, making the last league to the house an ordeal.
He turned on the faucet and washed the blood from his arm, aware of his mother’s eyes staring at his arms, his blood-stained T-shirt, and torn kakis. Only when he had finished washing and replacing the rags with an old kitchen towel did he turn around. Not meeting his mother’s eyes, Paul rummaged the pantry for some cereal before sitting down. The milk was sitting on the table, already lukewarm.
“Where have you been?”
Paul took a few spoonfuls of the chocolate flaky cereal before pushing the bowl away. How can you enjoy cereal with warm milk?
“In the woods,” he said.
“Oh near the east side. Solomon’s shack . . . close to the obelisk.” The sharp intake of breath was expected, but his mother’s fright chilled him nonetheless. He looked up into her horror filled face. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Why . . .? Why did you go near that place? Paul, they could have killed you!”
Absently he wiped his hands on what remained of his pants, trying in vain to clean the slime from his palms. Soap might work, he thought, if mixed with a little napalm. He continued wiping his hands under the table while his mother stared and cried; they felt dirty and cruel there, empty. Now especially, he regretted crushing that letter. What happened afterwards could not be avoided, but the letter would have made her happy. After a few minutes he picked up the spoon again and piled flakes on one side of the bowl.
Hours ago, the notice arrived fresh from the mailbox. Considering the success of his last interview, Paul had expected the worst, and insisted on retrieving the mail every morning for the past two weeks. It didn’t take long to realize Starford’s decision. After reading the first sentence, he had considered destroying the letter, leaving envelope and notice in shreds. Instead Paul stuffed the crumbled sheets into his pocket and turned to the forest.
Time passes slowly on those gray rainless days. For an unknown span of minutes (or possibly hours), he stood there staring at the obelisk rising like a rotted tooth above the forest trees before running and tripping into the darkness under the pines. This of course was forbidden. No less than a ten-year sentence if any of the rangers caught him. Only Solomon and his daughter through some special dispensation lived deep within the trees, a mile or so from the black slab. Yet the smell of pine and crunch of twig, reminded Paul of hiking trips far to the north with his father. Good times long since past. Long before the obelisk appeared, hovering like a gargoyle above the vast green forest ceiling.
He fell among the dead needles as the rage and despair left him. How long he sat there staring at the gray fog, he did not remember. At some point his feet objected to the languor and carried him forward, shuffling aimlessly more or less towards Solomon’s cabin. The fog swirled about the path like phantom currents, obscuring exposed roots, moss covered rocks, and insects scrambling from underground dens.
A sudden shriek shattered his thoughts. He rose and ran to the sound, coming to the edge of a clearing. Several yards away, a frail old man gripped the body of a child. “Oh no, Alice,” Paul gasped. “Solomon.” A charred stick lay at their feet. Above the prone shaking old man, an obsidian shadow leered, wreathed in smoke.
The spoon rattled in the empty bowl before he replied. Somehow this moment felt more difficult than anything else. The words came reluctantly.
“I got a reply from Starford and Associates . . .” he murmured, pausing over each syllable. “. . . and I didn’t like what they had to say.”
“Oh,” his mother said, relaxing somewhat with another sip of coffee. “I know that it meant so much to you, working at your father’s company and all, but you mustn’t throw your life away. Near the obelisk and . . . those creatures. They did this to you? You didn’t . . .?”
“No, they attacked Solomon. Attacked me too, but . . .” he looked down, staring at the amount of dirt beneath his nails. “ . . . but I got away.” A sigh.
“And they did that to you?”
“Just a few cuts.” Paul grinned slightly. “Got in a few lucky swipes. Nothing broken. Did more damage crashing through the trees actually, and Alice fixed me up afterwards. She’s practicing for her merit badge. Did a good job, though her patch-ups look rough. She’ll make a good nurse one day.” His mother stared at his arms and left the table. Paul heard a pot of water being set down on the stove behind him.
“Solomon and the little girl, ok?”
“Yeah, no damage. ‘though, Solomon and Alice had quite a fright. I nearly peed myself when I saw it too.”
“Did they . . .” his mother asked with hesitancy. Her tone now sounded more official, like the forest ranger he knew. Paul welcomed the change.
“No, he didn’t kill the creature. I managed to draw the thing away. Lost it in the fog . . . hey, watch it!” She unwrapped the hastily bandaged gauze and cloth, revealing a deep gash, which in truth looked worse than it felt. His body felt battered and bruised, like being sandwiched between two motorbuses. An herbal paste lined the cavity of his wound. One of Alice’s concoctions.
“And to augment healing, apparently,” Paul explained, at his mother’s grimace. The paste and coagulated blood closely resembled vomit. “Don’t wash it out. I want to see if it works.”
“Looks disgusting,” his mother said, though she avoided the cut as she washed away the dried blood. “I’m happy they fixed you up, but it’d just be best you stayed away from their house. Too dangerous down there in the shadow of that thing. If one of them had killed you . . . oh I just can’t . . .” Paul stared across the table, trying to count the rings in wooden cabinets and block the sound of sob-less tears behind him. “And if Solomon had killed one, the whole valley would be overrun. Remember several years ago? Well, you may have been too young . . . but thousands sprouted from that black rock like drops of water on a cola bottle. Never stopped swarming . . . giant insects with their black bodies, claws, all those legs, uhg . . . it was horrible.”
“Your father’s company helped us escape then. After all, this was their project. Their discovery. Trans-dimensional life forms, arriving mysteriously and all that,” her hands fumbled with the fresh bandages around his arms. “A helicopter landed on our front yard. Ha, it would have been cool to photograph if I had the mind, but nearly the whole state was consumed. Bodies everywhere . . . didn’t stop flooding from the rock until the poor man who had shot one, days earlier, was torn to pieces. Wasn’t even from the West Coast.”
“I-I heard that. New York, I think. A sportsman, out hunting with his friends. Found the body near the border.”
“Stupid. All those lives lost because someone wanted a trophy.”
“But once he w-was gone, they left . . . the creatures that is, right? They left?”
“Yeah, strange. I remember watching the footage. Like low tide had come in. They just got sucked up into the rock again. It was like nothing ever happened. But all those people . . . Once your father returned to his experiments, I believe we were the only ones left within a hundred miles . . . well there you go. All fixed up.”
Paul stared at the neat clean white wrappings and excused himself to wash up, leaving his mother to fix dinner. He scrubbed his hands and face several times. His hands never seemed to be clean though. His stomach churned, and he got sick in the toilet. After a few more washes, he walked slowly upstairs to change clothes and pack. Selecting a brown backpack from the floor, he stuffed it full of clothes, a few large books, and several packages of pistachios. Water he could obtain later. Then feeling comfortable with his supplies, Paul combed his hair, put on his deodorant, shuffled downstairs. At each step his body seemed to rebel against him.
He read for a few hours – his mother abhorred television – before cleaning the bathroom. Dinner was Mac n’ Cheese, the one with powdered cheese and milk. His mother was scheduled for patrol with one of the other park rangers later that evening. An older man. He called Paul, ‘son.’
Thus dinner was light, fast, and microwavable. Paul did not mind though. The artificial stuff always tasted better than the real cheese, anyway. Besides after today, it tasted like a feast.
They ate silently at first until his mother broached the topic of jobs and the future. Paul had anticipated this but kept his thoughts to himself while his mother suggested that he begin small, taking on positions in other companies, building his resume, and then applying again in a year’s time.
“After all, your father did not become the top engineer all at once. He had to work at a desk for two years before his superiors realized his talents. You just need to be patient. That’s all. And once you obtain your dream job, you can buy a house and meet a girl, and everything will be ok, I promise.”
Paul stared at the remains of his macaroni and cheese. With the point of his fork, he scraped his name in the dried cheese. P-A-U-L.
“Mom, did you and Dad ever want well . . . more?”
“What do you mean, honey? More than what?”
“Well,” Paul said nervously, trying to restrain the emotion within him. “Not necessarily riches or fame or . . . or stuff. Not that. Just more than just existing? Sometimes, I feel so trapped here. Like there is so much more that I can do, if I just have the courage to reach out and grab it. I want something to fight for. Something to believe in. Not just to sleep, eat, and work, but to live . . . to really fight to protect someone or something, you know?”
“You want to save the world?” his mother asked with a smile that belied her concern.
“No not the world. Just save something . . .anyone.”
“That’s the job of a father and husband, hon. Those responsibilities will come in time. Your father had his share of battles . . . his share of rejection letters, stupid bosses and taxes,” she said clearing the table. Her cheeks reddened before squeezing blue gel into the sink. “Once you start to work, trust me, you won’t have time to worry about those things. Saving the world isn’t for the likes of us.”
Paul smiled, but said nothing. After a moment or two, he asked his mother about her day and enjoyed the passing minutes listening to the sound of her voice.
Near dawn, Paul quickly dressed, gathered up his gear, and quietly limped downstairs. The night’s sleep seemed to intensify rather than mollify every bruise and cut. His mother lay on the couch, after another late night patrolling the area around the forest. She still wore her green and beige ranger uniform and snored lightly. Paul slipped into the kitchen and filled a large thermos with water, then replacing the thermos in his pack. Paul tip-toed painfully into the living room and folded a white sheet of paper on the coffee table. He kissed his mother on the cheek and then after a slight pause opened the door and walked outside. The sun showed brightly, welcoming a beautiful day. A rich royal blue filled the western sky, stained not even with a wisp of cloud. Only to the east did the glory of the new day seem to eclipse and fade, blotted by the immense slab of rock, hanging like a tear in the fabric of the horizon. Sunrises here are always late, he thought with a grunt. Walking felt difficult, but he gathered up his strength and hobbled into the thick understory of the forest.
Down along the path Paul walked. Past the tree under which he sat despairing, cursing a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. Past the point where he had first seen the creature, snarling over old Solomon. Past the pile of rocks Paul had picked up and hurled at its head. Past the large hole in the underbrush, where the monster had crashed, tearing at his arm, and knocking him through a grove of hard oaks. Past the roots where one of its many black insect legs had stumbled against the roots. Past the blood-soiled ground where Paul had killed it.
Paul stooped beside the body and picked up his walking stick from the creature’s collapsed temple. Whitish-red fluid, the color of swatted fly, dripped from the knob, but he did not stop to wash it off. He continued to limp into the forest, blazing a path through columns of large evergreens. The path up to an old house skirted most of the brambles and within a few minutes he spied a weather-beaten facade, where on a rotting set of steps an old man sat with pipe in mouth.