by Tom Sanford V
It had grown increasingly difficult for him to wake up without having to wipe any sulfur from the sides of his face. He had never figured out exactly where it would come from, though he wasn’t above an educated guess. His shack was only about seven or eight square feet in size and most of his belongings, what little of them existed, hadn’t been tainted. Those that had, like clothing, he brought to the river and rinsed each and every time it became very bad, but that could have been in vain. His drinking water came from a self charging dehumidifier and tasted like rust and popping candy. In his mind it could only be something his body was producing with restful thought. He sat up, reached for his rag and wiped anyway, just in case the usually numb areas on his face were playing tricks. No stains, though. That was enough for a smirk, the first in a long, dry period of little to no facial expression. He knew because he remembered being told by a teacher that his face would freeze if it stayed silly for too long. What if it had only stayed vacant? Living proof! Your clichés were useless, Mrs. Appleby. Please know everyone always hated you.
Inside the shack it was always moderately clean, certainly as clean as was maintainable and he would reach the pique moment of his modern life daily upon that first glance around when waking up. Despite the uncomfortable and often painful process of cleaning the excretions of sleep, that visualization of the room around him was always satisfying. Then he would place his glasses on to his face, the blurred vision would clear and he would remember.
He swung his feet over the cot and slid them into his feet protectors. Shoe was not an adequate term for what were basically soles and velcro. Sandals might have worked, but sandals reminded him of Jesus. Jesus was busy having tea with Mrs. Appleby.
Funny enough he was beginning to look a bit like the son of God. It had been a very, very long time since his last shave and while his beard couldn’t have been tugged on at Macy’s, he may have been stopped at airport security sporting the look. He hadn’t been in an airport in as many as 14 months but based on his last trip, which was solely for a feeling of familiarity, no one would be bothering him. He got up, unlocked the door, skipped the thought of why he was still locking it and stepped outside.
The sun was hot and it was October 29th-30th. His calendar hung on the outside of the shack and he took the magic marker next to it and drew two small circles on each day amongst other passing shapes. The calendar didn’t include a 29th day in February and without a clue as to when the last time that day existed he assumed he was doing the right thing in generalizing his current day. The margin of error was probably more like three or four days. He glanced at his carrots, which were growing. They were yellow, but they were growing. They certainly tasted like carrots. After a quick watering he plucked a smaller one and began to chew. This was the most work he would do that day. He had immediately become fixated on something else.
Beyond the area of land he considered his, past the small cemetery where his dog who had lived to be 13 was buried; at the top of the hill in the clearing made originally for the telephone poles he saw a sitting draft. It wasn’t concrete, but he was fairly certain it was there. The atmosphere played funny tricks on his eyes despite the fact that it was nowhere near as dense as it had originally been. Whether he had become accustomed to it or it was simply beginning to thin over time, it could still be difficult to judge. No, this time he was fairly certain.
Rushing inside the shack he began to get frantic and realized it, quickly calming himself as he pulled on a long sleeve shirt. His jacket zipper was broken so he tied a bit of rope around his waist and pulled on a paintball mask. He left the shack and began to walk towards the hill from his already elevated location. These were Appalachian offshoots, once treasured for their foliage and views with what he had always thought to be overly acceptable hikes. Now, he would reach his destination in a matter of minutes, working up a sweat and pushing on the steep ground.
He stopped at the top and looked out over the bottom. Just like someone who may have drawn a hill on a piece of paper, it went up and then right back down. On either side were trees and rocks. He could see the length of the clearing, though, as it went down his hill, up another, down another. Had it been a Sunday afternoon some years ago he would have liked taking in the view, feeling as alive as he did at that very moment. He also wouldn’t have had to go to the trouble of removing his paintball mask and pulling in deep breaths from the pocket of clean air. Had it been a Sunday afternoon he might have been with his dog, clutching his blue leash. Maybe even impressing a pretty girl who had come along for the hike, he pondered, not noticing his nose had begun to bleed. Minutes later it dripped on to his one hand clutching his belt of rope and he looked down at it. His cloudy vision made that difficult, however, as his eyes had welled with blood in the same instant. He removed his glasses, placed them in his pocket and with one blink panicked and stumbled backwards, sideways, downwards, what seemed like infinite directions until finally he spilled into the woods at his right, tumbling down. After several hard hitting but quick rotations he collided with a tree and grunted in pain as his forearm met bark. He looked at his inches long wound and sat.
The hospital was by itself on a foreboding hill, adjacent to town. He was able to avoid the once populated area by taking a path through the very woods in which his accident had taken place. He knew he was out of bandages in the shack, so he didn’t bother returning. While his dislike for hospitals had once been due to their bustling, morbid busyness it was now due to their silent, morbid dormancy. He knew exactly where to go, though, and the trip would be short as being in the building in the first place jeopardized his mental stability, if that were even possible. The main wing of the hospital would have nothing of help but the nurses’ quarters had remained largely untouched and were smaller, far more manageable. He battered a hole through the back door, reapplied the pressure to his wound and entered. Without a flashlight he would not have much time, but working with the windows he had didn’t seem to be a problem. The light shone through, illuminating the dust and bringing about familiar thoughts of his grandmother’s musty, covered couch on her back porch. He almost tripped over the child’s ride-on fire truck in the middle of the room, but kicked it aside and continued forward. It was as though he’d just been in that very room, though his original location was most likely thousands of miles away at that point. The buckets of art supplies were inanimate and in place, all except for one which had tilted and spilled rainbows of craft paint across the floor.
After noticing the cabinet of supplies in another room he approached them with frustrated force and began to violently kick the glass. After a few strikes, it shattered and fell, at which point he reached in with his injured arm and swiped an overstock of gauze, antiseptic and bandages into his plastic bag. With what remained, he began to fiercely bandage his arm. Tighter and with more pressure, he quivered and tied his injury. The bleeding had stopped, the wound was treated and the scar would remain for the rest of his life. As he gathered his new found belongings and began to leave, the sight of a round table and four small, colorful chairs enraged him. He grabbed the chairs, threw them, and flipped the table they accompanied on to its top. A bookshelf looked fragile and weak in story selection, so he did what he didn’t feel he had to and knocked it over, kicking a hole into the side of it and stomping on it. A small desk was light enough to lift and throw across the lifeless room at two large closets of toys. The force was too much for the closets to handle, though, and they collapsed, spilling in to one another and opening, unleashing a plethora of stuffed animals, action figures, light up baby toys and picture books. The noises and flashing lights from the toys startled him greatly and it was all he needed to be reminded of the fact that he was standing in an abandoned hospital with no light.
He began slowly approaching to observe the toys. A monkey, an elephant, and a few other animals that had not crossed his mind in years among other things were strewn about. All noises had quieted except for one. A faint, musical tune played as toys were moved aside and it grew louder to him while remaining otherwise soft.
A yellow, white, and red cassette player with a child’s microphone attached played a wordless nursery rhyme. He reached down, picked it up and listened. As he turned up the volume on the device, he regretted ever coming to the hospital as the sound amongst the silence was so deafening that it shook him enough to drop it. Landing on to the monkey, it continued to play, loud and muffled as he began breathing heavily, which could not have been a good thing. The building was clearly ridden with asbestos so it had probably been unused long before anything else happened. As he picked up the cassette player, pressed stop and glanced around, he realized the irrelevance of his fear as he was the only person in the hospital. He was the only person within an immeasurable radius. He was the only person to know that there was a castle somewhere halfway across the world in Romania beginning to cast shadows around it as it grew dark with nothing inside. There was nothing waiting for him in that castle, and there was nothing waiting for him here. He turned to leave and stepped over a wooden box heading for the door with a smiling, glassy eyed face painted on to the side. He picked it up, examining it, and realized it was the first time he had ever seen a puppet theater up close.
There were manufactured puppet theaters with silly stuffed animal puppets like a fat pig or a goggle eyed frog, but this looked as though someone had hand painted it and carved it themselves. With only two folds, when opened it presented a curtained backdrop of a meadow and sunshine and carried two puppets carved from wood. The first, with a large, silver hat and pointed nose, looked a bit like a Marx brother in his flashy outfit and had blue eyes fixated, perhaps on some distant, mischievously attained snack. The other puppet was a nice, simple old woman with rosy cheeks and parted gray hair in a bun. Her dress looked to be made of rags and she wore glasses molded on to her face. Both looked related, but he could not tell for sure.
He had decided he was spending too much time examining puppets so he picked up the cassette player, pulled off the microphone, placed it inside along with a small case with a few other cassette tapes and folded it up. He exited through the door he had broken to enter.
It didn’t take as long as he thought to rinse off the blood caked on his eyes and upper lip. It was so refreshing in fact that he used his conserved reservoir to fully bathe for the first time in a month or so and even trimmed his terrorist beard to an acceptable, neat level, shorter than it had been in years. When he finished he felt like he could hop in to a pair of pajamas and be read a bed time story. Instead, he wore a pair of jeans and a clean long sleeve shirt and went outside to start a fire.
The fire was a few feet from the cemetery he lived near. Most graves were unmarked but a few had crudely carved dates of birth and death, one even detailed enough to have a poem with a few lines. Maybe it was a biblical verse, he wasn’t sure as he hadn’t read it, but a man named Phillip Sorvino who had been 32 years old was buried beneath the marker. For his dog, he had only tied a cross out of a couple sturdy branches to hang his collar on. It wouldn’t matter if weather or anything else damaged the cross, as he would just construct another in its place to hang the collar. In total he estimated there were between 10 to 15 people buried beneath the cemetery area, but he could not be sure as the graves were mostly unmarked.
He sat in a chair and watched as the clear night sky showcased stars and a full moon. The idea of climbing the hill to observe the beauty which was clearer in most areas now than it had ever been before had always intrigued him but he would quickly suppress such an idea. Unless he were feeling particularly suicidal, one of the reasons his life had been lucky (or unlucky) enough to continue had been his hesitancies in trusting his surroundings. It had been as simple as that and he had lived beyond anyone else he knew of because of it. The night sky he now knew based on that thought process could only be playing a trick of some kind. He did not know what but if darkness was capable of tricks before any unnatural changes had taken place, it would certainly have evolved with newly developed dangers.
As the fire died down, he was amazed at the amount of moonlight coming through the clearing. He could see blades of grass, rocks, even some of the text on the cemetery markers, all from a distance. It was at that point he began to set up the puppet theater. He placed it on top of a piece of plywood he had arranged earlier being supported by two empty drum cans.
As he did this, he opened a package of peanut butter cups he had been saving, took a bite and placed the half eaten candy and its’ identical twin next to the theater. Behind it he placed a step ladder just high enough for him to oversee his puppet show. Before climbing it, he placed a tape in the cassette player, turned the volume to a considerable level as to not wake the neighbors and pressed Play. The tape inside was faded but legibly read “URAN DURA – THE CHAUFF” as it spun and crackled, preparing.
The theater had a red curtain held up by a golden rod, which hid his hands, the jester on the left and the old woman on the right. The instruments in the song began to play and he slid the curtain aside with his mouth, smiling. As the verse began, he moved the puppets to the rhythm of the song in the moonlight.
“Out on the tar plains, the glides are moving. All looking for a new place to drive…”
He liked how silly they looked as he performed. They danced, looking at each other, into their wooden eyes, then back out at the sleeping crowd, and back again at each other. Up, then down, and up and down, prancing about.
“And the sun drips down bedding heavy behind, the front of your dress – all shadowy lined, and the droning engine throbs in time with your beating heart.”
As the heavy bass began to crackle through the speakers he felt his heart beating in his chest, just as the song suggested. It was at that moment he lifted his head and saw the first arm reach out from behind the big rock near his dog’s grave. It gripped the grass, pulled itself forward and revealed the body it was attached to. A child’s body.
“…and the droning engine throbs in time with your beating heart…”
He thought he would never be able to look away as the small boy; it was a boy he had seen, pushed himself up and began to sway back and forth to the rhythm of the music. He was forced to look away, though, as he saw the gleam of two white eyes peer out from behind a tree. Another craned its’ neck from behind another tree, and another, then another until he could not count the pairs of white eyes emerging from the woods. That was until they stepped in to the light of the moon, revealing more children. They wore children’s clothing, one with overalls, another with a pair of shorts and a Bugs Bunny t-shirt. The boy he had seen first was wearing a tank top and sweatpants. The children swayed back and forth as the puppet show continued, and he knew he would not stop.
“Sing blue silver…”
He estimated ten of the children were in front of him, dancing as the flute began. Four had come from the woods; one had been the boy from behind the rock. Three had come up the hill from the direction of the river and those three were wet. Two had come from behind him and he had not seen where, if anywhere, they were originally hiding. One of them, a girl, stood at the very front of the children. He examined her closely, not grasping the detail of her facial features as it had been so long since he had laid eyes upon another person but he was not sure she was a person, nor whether any of them were. As he looked at her he noticed her skin. While it was somewhat normal in tone it carried a dull, greenish hue in the light of the moon, a noticeable difference in the standard (human) reflective glow he was displaying. Some of her veins were blue and were carrying extra dimension on her skin, but he was not sure if they were veins or some sort of growth. They looked like veins, and the other children looked much like her. As they swayed back and forth, their eyes were fixated on the puppet show. He knew this because the girl in the front, her eyes were fixated on him.
As she looked at him, he began to notice her shoulder length brown hair with curls on the end and her rounded, chubby chin. She clutched the bottom of the shirt she was wearing, tugging on the fabric lovingly as though it had once been her favorite. Her white eyes gleamed and she remained expressionless and he finally had to look away, taking comfort in the ground. Then he noticed the song leaving its’ mark with a crescendo and suddenly ending. He looked at the cassette player in time to hear the chains at the end of the song and upon looking back at the audience, all that remained were those who were buried.
Hopping off of his step ladder, he struggled with the cassette player trying to get the song to restart, furiously mashing the rewind button. With no patience he ran through the cemetery, screaming, pleading for them to return. He looked up at the clearing and saw two small white-eyed silhouettes. They were too far for him to be sure, but they had to be looking at him. He was the only thing of interest in that direction.
He began to move with a great speed as a compulsion to chase them came over him. It was about 10 feet before he realized as he was falling that he had lost his footing on an unmarked grave and was going to hit the ground. He had only been half right as his head hit the rock next to the grave of his dog and he passed out.
He awoke to the sunrise through the clearing in the morning and a calming wind. He stood, brushed himself off and walked towards the shack. His eyes needed to be wiped and he was to take care of that immediately. It was worse than usual since he’d slept outside. He returned wiping the last bit of discharge away as he observed his surroundings. Nothing had changed since he had fallen asleep, but he did notice that someone had rustled around in the shack and taken the picture of him and his little sister he had kept. Someone had also eaten his other peanut butter cup.