Peppered

Zombie apocalypse. I wander around my parents’ neighborhood – down in the part of the loop where their house is – carrying a bloodstained baseball bat. I am a survivor. 

Fluffy is with me, as are a few other men. We cleared the area of zombies, but they are so widespread, so pervasive, we are never safe anywhere for long. We know of a checkpoint nearby, and all but one of the men decide to drive one of the trucks that way in hopes of finding out what is happening.

The man and I stand by my parents’ mailbox. The sky is gray, darkening as night approaches. A car comes up the drive from the neighbor’s house, and a woman and a 6 year old child get out of it. She waves an automatic rifle and a radio.

“It doesn’t look good,” she says. “I hope they reach the outpost soon. From what I’ve heard, this area is so overpopulated. They think the only way to neutralize the situation is to nuke it. I just hope they come get us, or at least give us a chance to clear the radius.”

It’s dusk now, and the man built a fire down by the hardwoods that begin the woods along the edge of my parents’ yard. I stand at the top of the yard, scanning the road, scanning how the patchy grass and moss slope at first sharply and then gently down, down to the campsite.

The child is playing, running. His mother isn’t paying attention, and he picks up the rifle. The man tells him not to touch it, and the child drops it. The safety isn’t on.

Bullets, rapid, everywhere. She’s running to the child. They are screaming, screaming as their bodies are mutilated. I throw up my arm, as if that can protect me. Dirt, twigs, bits of moss pepper my legs, and when the pop-pop-pop stops, they are dead. Dead. Shredded, empty flesh bags face down in the leaves near the fire.

The man steps out from behind an oak he used as a shield. He looks at me. “My God.” In the firelight, I see his Adam’s apple bob. Then, I hear the moaning.

“I don’t want to die,” I say. “I don’t want to be undead.”

Then, I awoke.

Waiting…a different time.

During the hours that I sat in the waiting room for Oncology, I studied dream interpretation. I bought several books on the subject, and while the doctors radiated my mother, I read about symbolism. The waiting room was large, so large that I could sit alone and never worry that anyone would need to sit next to me. I always sat in the section away from the TV and close to the refreshment center. I kept to myself and spoke to no one. I just read until the nurse called me to go out and pull the car around for my mother.

One Thursday, a woman sat next to me, which forced me stop reading and acknowledge her. She smiled and pointed to my book.  “Dream interpretation,” she said. “Sounds neat.”

“It can be,” I said.

We introduced ourselves and began a lengthy conversation on the symbolism of colors and numbers.

After talking for about ten minutes, she told me that she moved her father in with her family so she could take care of him, her husband, and her three kids. Bone cancer. Even now, I still wince at the thought of it. Not as bad as pancreatic, liver, or colon cancers but bad, very hard to treat, usually fatal. He was to the point where he had to wear a neck brace all the time. It was the first time that I was ever thankful for the type of cancer my mother had.

For the next week, she brought her father at the same time I brought my mother, and we talked about dreams and cancer. I feel a bit ashamed that I can’t remember her name, especially since I remember her dreams. They were normal dreams about every day sorts of things with the exception that she was always dragging a heavy black garbage bag. About the time he reached the point where he could no longer care for himself, her father began throwing all his trash down the ravine behind his house. The hillside was strewn with black garbage bags of trash, and this woman and her husband had to clean it all up before they could sell the house. She was angry and burdened, and those feelings made her feel guilty. After talking about it, she felt better and joked that I ought to charge her for my time.

Near the end of that week, her father’s white count was too low for him to receive more treatments. After that, I never saw her again, but one of the nurses, who overheard our conversations, commented to me that I was a sweet girl for talking to her.  Her father’s prognosis was poor, and I had likely eased her guilt about the situation.

Of the meeting, my mother said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

I replied, “Of course He does. If He didn’t, we would all understand everything, and there would be no cancer.”

“You know I believe that everything happens for a reason,” she said.

“Yeah, well, why do you think you got cancer?”

She shrugged. “Maybe to bring you and your father closer together.”

“That’s fucked up,” I said, to which she snapped at me for cursing. “I think you got cancer because you grew up in a city before there was any regulation on what toxins industries to pump into the air, and you went to college in a town where the morning air was so filled with chemicals it was yellow.”

“And I didn’t wear sunscreen like I should,” she added. “Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes things just break.”

So I thought, Even God answers his children’s questions with, “Because.” It’s not an answer at all, so why bother asking?

Predator

He considered himself no different from any other animal that finds joy in toying with its prey before delivering it unto Death. He used only the weapons nature gave him, and he didn’t always eat what he killed. He considered most of it practice, a honing of skills and body.

He watched an episode of Blue Planet that showed a pod of killer whales stalking a blue whale and its pup, taunting the mother, nipping at the babe. When the pup was exhausted, they toyed with the mother until she could no longer defend her offspring. The orcas circled and jabbed, like a pack of boxers, and when they finally separated mother and child, they killed the pup but ate only its cheek meat – the choicest cut, so to speak. After the orcas left, the mother whale swam around the pup for hours, nudging it.

The unspoken questions were obvious. Were the orcas evil? Did the blue whale love her pup?  He knew that such questions had no meaning in nature. He wondered where humans got off thinking they were evil or just or loving. Just because they believed they had souls, because they thought themselves civilized with advanced language skills, they were somehow better and accountable to someone’s notion of moral standards. Ants were civilized, and they sure as hell didn’t have ethics. Mounds often went to war with one another. Yes, he knew it was bullshit.

When he killed, it was because it was in his nature because he was of nature and not bound by a fabricated sense of right and wrong. When he killed his own kind, it was no different than the male dolphin, orangutan, or lion that slaughtered his competitors’ offspring and mated with as many females as possible to increase the odds of leaving a significant genetic footprint amongst the species.  What he did was normal, and those who said differently were kidding themselves.

The Bride

Picture her, a mixture of Vivian Leigh and Lynda Carter, with skin like cream, large, thickly lashed eyes, and full lips.  Sculpted into a spiraling and curling work of art, her hair rivals the most intricate of powdered wigs, but it is dark, the color of richly brewed coffee.  In the dream, I am living inside her skin.

Her gown is white, tier upon tier of antique lace, which rises high, encircling her delicate throat.  At the center, she has pinned a cameo featuring the three muses.  The sleeves, bodice, and skirt overlay are a pale blue silk with a faint sheen, and it all drapes over a hoop skirt and tulle petticoats.  Under all the fabric, her body is bare.  She wears three-inch, black button-closed boots.

She sweats in the Caribbean summer heat, irritated that her fiancé wanted to have a Victorian themed wedding in a tropical setting.  The ceremony and reception are over, and she waits in the shade of a building awning, waving a lace fan at her painted face, and praying her new husband hurries so they can adjourn to the honeymoon suite.  She glances down at her ring, a fat hunk of emerald that matches her eyes.  She likes the ring, diamonds being overrated and over-priced.  The groom arrives, but she pays him little mind other than to take his offered arm.

She looks out across the lagoon.  There stands the collection of bamboo and grass huts that make up the honeymoon suite.  To get to it from the shore, she must cross a plank and rope bridge.  Her feet hurt.  Tired and hot, all she can think is to get in the shade and cool of the hut and get out of the dress.

When her husband turns back to speak with straggling well-wishers, she releases him and starts across the bridge.  She makes it halfway.  A strong wind sweeps across the lagoon, and she stumbles.  Her ankle twists, and she falls against the rope railing.  In a comical way, she flips feet-over-head over the railing and takes a nosedive into the lagoon.

Here, the lagoon is already twenty or so feet deep.  She stares up at the surface of the water as she sinks.  She tugs at the dress, tries to wrench off the boots, but still sinks until she finally touches the bottom.  The bottom is smooth, almost like a concrete swimming pool but made of sugar-white sand.  She tries to push off the bottom and digs her fingers into the water as if it could be used as a rope to pull herself to the surface, to blessed air.

When her lungs fail and her blinding vision of the surface above goes dim, I pop out of her body and shoot into the sky.  My spirit spreads until I am the sky.  I am the clouds, the birds, the very sun.  I watch as the people scream, and the young husband, realizing what has happened, dives into the water.  I smile down at them, happy to be free of the dress.

   

Dressing

In the barn, the deer hung on something that resembled a sadistic coat hanger.  The ends were sharpened spikes that pierced through the skin between the small bones in the deer’s lower hind legs.  The hook was a loop of metal hung on a fat tack, resembling a small railroad spike, in a beam of the barn.  The deer dangled, spread-eagle, over the vegetable tray from the beer fridge.

He’d killed it only two hours before and field dressed it, so it only smelled of blood and wild animal.  Gamey.  He’d let the dogs in to sniff around, and when he set the body to swinging, the lab licked up the dribbled blood while the rat terrier went berserk.  It leapt at the deer’s face, snapping until it latched onto the tongue.  The dog jerked its head from side-to-side, wrenching the deer’s neck in a blur of motion.

“That’s enough now,” he said to the terrier and herded both dogs outside so he could butcher the deer.  “We start with the saw.”

He lifted a rusted wood saw and put the blade against the silvery-brown fur of the deer.  “Right here, just above what we’ll call his elbow,” he explained as the saw slid through fur and skin, through tendons and ligaments and the joint.  For a moment, he held the lower right front leg by its ankle.  With a casual flick of the wrist, he flung it outside the barn, with the result of excited, shrill barks from the dogs.  He repeated the process on the other front leg.

When he’d made all the use he needed of the saw, he set it aside and picked up the fillet knife.  After poking a small hole in the skin above the shoulder, he slid the knife between meat and skin, being careful to cut off the silver skin as well.  “You gotta get it all.  It’s awful eatin’,” he said.  “Chewy as hell.”

The butchering went in stages – separating skin from meat and meat from bone.  All the while, the steady drip, drip, drip of blood and juices giving rhythm to his work and the twitching of the body as friction countered the knife blade.  When he finished, he had filled a large Tupperware tub with meat, and the deer was now a stripped skeleton with only its head intact.

“It’s not pretty enough to mount,” he complained, grabbing the antlers and staring the deer in its filmy eyes.  “Here,” he gestured to the tub, “take that on up to the house and let the dogs back in for just a minute.  I’ll let ’em play.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, picking up the tub.

I heard the yips of the terrier and deep-chested growls of the lab mix in with his laughter as I crossed the yard to the back door of the house.  In my hands, the meat was still slightly warm.

Tutor

Sitting on the concrete bench in front of the building, I smoked between classes.  I liked the spot, a kind of perch atop the wide stairs that overlooked sidewalks, flowerbeds, oaks planted after the campus burned during the Civil War, and the crosswalk.  Despite a flashing neon yellow sign that read, “Stop for pedestrians,” someone got hit there every semester.  Stupid kids, driving like stupid kids, and hitting other stupid kids like they were squirrels.

I hogged the bench.  I had my feet up, my knees tucked up to my chest.  I liked sitting that way – the way they made us hunker during tornado drills or actual tornados when I was in elementary school.  With my right arm wrapped around my knees, I clasped my left arm just above the elbow.  With methodical timing, I bent my elbow, took a drag, and straightened my arm.  Then, I watched as the smoke wafted out of my gaping mouth or streamed from my nostrils.  I’m a dragon, I thought childishly and smiled at myself.

“Hey,” someone called to me.

Like a Viewmaster, I blinked to switch from what I thought to the real world.  I looked two steps down to find the guy-in-the-Pantera-T-shirt.  He always wore one with faded, black jeans, black Chuck Taylor’s, and three wallet chains.  This day, he wasn’t wearing his dog collar bracelet or armor ring.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He tossed his backpack at the base of the bench and took out his pack of cigarettes.  Since he meant to sit, and I felt polite, I swiveled, letting my feet drop, and sat on the bench normally.  He patted himself, and knowing what he sought, I offered him my lighter, keeping my hand out as a reminder for him to return it.  He did and sat beside me.

“How’re you doing in this class?”  He waved his cigarette at the building.

Simultaneously, we turned our heads and blew smoke over the azaleas instead of in each other’s faces while never breaking eye contact.  I rubbed my cigarette under the bench to put it out, not minding when bits of hot tobacco stung my hand, and set the butt on the bench between us.

“Good,” I said in answer to his question.

“I thought so.  Could you maybe help me?  I mean, I can pay you, some.”

“Yeah, I’m real busy.”  After a glance at my watch, I knew I had time for one more, so I bent sideways to fish out a smoke from the front pocket of my backpack.  Pantera bumped my arm and offered me one of his.

When I took it, he said, “Yeah, I figured, but look, I’m serious.  I have to pass this class.”

I lit the cigarette and took a drag, exhaled and took another, making him stew just a bit.  “How about Saturday?  There isn’t a game.”

He winced.  “I can’t do it then.  My friends and I…we build rockets.”

My eyebrows darted up at that.  “Really?  Like fifth grade science class?”

“Well, not dinky ones.”

“You build rockets,” I mused and thought of the little engines that looked like rolls of coins with tampon strings.  “Do they have parachutes?”

He laughed and looked off into the bushes.  “Yeah, and one weekend, a buddy of mine had his dad down and he helped us make napalm.”

I choked.  “That’s just…not normal.”  Then, I laughed because anyone who spoke to me for more than five minutes knew I wasn’t normal.  “Yeah, okay Pantera-Napalm-Guy.  When are you free?”

We made plans to meet at the library on Thursday afternoon, and when he finished his smoke, I said I’d meet him in class.  I sat a bit longer, wondering how much money the University spent on grounds upkeep.  The azaleas were quite beautiful, cotton candy pink.

When I stood, my bottom was numb from sitting for so long on that hard, concrete bench.  Nintendo butt, my brother called it, like Nintendo thumb.  Except now, there was Sega thumb, X-Box thumb, and Playstation thumb.  I wondered if anyone had ever used a Playstation dual-shock controller as a vibrator.

I pinched my cigarette just above the filter and rolled it between my fingers.  When the hot rock fell out, I scrubbed it across the concrete with my boot and flicked the unburned tobacco free.  I always left that little bit because I hated the taste of burnt filter.

After buying a coffee from the street vendor, I pitched my butts into the trash and headed back in the building to class.