Alone in the Woods in the Deep Dark Night
(Below is one of my favorite stories. It's one of those works that had to gestate in my mind for years before I was finally able to get the correct tone and narrative for it to work. Hope it works for you too!)
* * *
With one last burst of desperate energy, Gary Irwin Chandler II shut the heavy back door against the howling winds. His breath came in frantic gulps and he shook with fear and cold slumped on the hardwood floors of the cabin, situated on the edge of the 50,000 acre Ojibwa National Forest in the upper peninsula 1of Michigan. The winter storm blew with a malevolent ferocity outside, lashing his abode with continuing blasts of wind and thick, wet sleet and snow that minutes before had almost cost Gary his life.
He curled his arms tight around his chest, his shivering body wracked his pain emanating from his cut right hand but even more so from his left leg. Gary glanced down, and his first crazy thought was that he was looking at the limb of a store mannequin that somehow had magically replaced his own.
But it wasn't plaster or plastic; the bloody, managed limb was his leg. From the knee down his jeans had been torn away, revealing torn flesh looking like meat from a badly carved steak.
This can't be real. This crap can't be real. Just hours ago I was talking with Donna, and now...
With one shaking finger he lightly touched it. Nothing. No pain, no sensation.Encouraged, Gary pushed harder, then screamed. The pain was nothing like he had ever experienced. It was deep, sharp, exploding like a bomb and expanding into his guts.
That was fucking brilliant! A tiny malevolent voice chirped deep inside his head. Just like all the other fucking brilliant things you've done today!
Tears streaked his face and thick snot ran out of his nose; Gary felt his mind shutting down, knew that he was seconds away from passing out, and if that happened—sitting there wearing clothes soaking wet and in a freezing house with no heat—he wasn't going to wake up.
"No", he said out loud, using his voice to stay conscious, "I'm not dying today. I'm not dying today..."
But you are dying, you loser, the malevolent voice countered, and the sooner you realize it the sooner the pain of your pathetic life can be over!
"No!" Gary said yet again. He forced himself to take deep breaths and slow his pounding heart over the demands of his shivering body that screamed for more oxygen and some form of warmth.
"I gotta get...dry clothes." But where? There was no way he had the energy to crawl down the long hallway of the cabin to the master bedroom, but if he didn't, he was going to—
"The laundry room," Gary said, the thought popping into his head. There was always a huge pile of dirty clothes in the laundry room, and that was just a few feet away.
See? the little voice sneered. Donna's disdain for all things domestic like doing laundry might finally pay off for you yet!
"I can do this." Gary grabbed the kerosene lantern with his left hand and put it on the floor. The light feebly cut through the thick darkness of the hallway, but it was enough. With pain throbbing like a monstrous toothache in his left leg, Gary crawled the 10 feet until the laundry room appeared to his left. Hardly any light from the lantern illuminated the room, but Gary didn't need it; he knew that there would be a huge mound of clothes in there that Donna refused to wash ("I'm not your maid, Gary!" was one of her favorite retorts to him asking her to at least do something around the house).
Gary entered the laundry room and reached the pile. It smelled of sweat, dirt, mildew, but it didn't matter—the clothes were dry. With the last vestiges of his strength, he pulled the soaked garments off his portly (fat, Gary! You're a fucking fat slob just like Donna used to say!) body. There was a sharp pain when he managed to get his pants off his injured leg, but he did it, then pulled on dry underwear, long johns, five sweatshirts from his college days and two pairs of corduroy pants (the ones that Donna hated, said it made me look like a dork, that's what she called me, a dork. Wonder what she'd call me now?) then wrapped a t-shirt around his hand and a down comforter around his shoulders.
His heart pounded like he had drunk six cups of cappuccino and his leg ached horribly, but he was dry but still miserably cold, still shaking. The storm was getting worse, the entire cabin now trembling under the hurricane-like blasts of freezing wind.
"I gotta get a fire going," he croaked, his throat dry and parched. Gary pushed himself up then grabbing the side of the washing machine stood, being careful to put as much weight as he could on his right leg. Hobbling down the hallway, he grabbed the lantern—being careful to avoid the still steaming puke on the floor— then turned and slowly made his way toward the living room and the vast, stone-faced fireplace that promised him salvation and life.
But he stopped halfway there as light from the lantern shown into the kitchen to his right.
"I'll get some water," Gary said, "then get a fire going, then" — (then what, fat boy? You have no power, you have no ride, you got absolutely nothing!)—"I'll wait out the storm and...someone will come by. Someone has to come by."
He didn't allow himself to linger on how illogical that last line of reasoning was, but instead limped over to the sink before yet another realization came to him: the cabin had a well for water which required a pump to pull it out of the frozen ground, a pump that required electricity to work.
If there's no water pressure I'll...Gary turned on the faucet. Water flowed out and he scooped it with a hand to his mouth like a Paleolithic caveman. See? There's pressure left in the system, you're able to drink and then you'll be able to start a fire and everything will be just fine!
"Yeah, everything will be just fine." His thirst sated, Gary turned off the water. Almost immediately his stomach growled at the thought of food; he glanced over at the refrigerator, sitting silent and mute next to the electric stove.
I need to eat as much as I needed to drink. Just a quick snack then I'll get the fire going. He wrapped the bulky down comforter tighter around his still-shivering body and opened an overhead cupboard door to get a plate. As he reached in, Gary spied a rounded, green bottle on the back of the shelf.
"Look what we have here," he said, holding up the lantern for illumination. "I drove all the way to Marquette for you." Gary retrieved the bottle of Armagnac and held in carefully in his hands. "I wanted to have something special for our dinner with the McNealin's and Doug." He unscrewed the top and took a long drink of the strong, amber liquid. Better be careful there Gary-boy, the tiny voice in the back of his head admonished him, you know how just a couple beers really fucks you up. After two glasses of Armagnac with dinner that night you couldn't even get the pole up for Donna. Bet she was wishing that Dougie would have been between the sheets that night!
Tears of anger and frustration began to roll slowly down Gary's face, then unleashed in a torrent. He was a city-boy, born and raised in the white-bread Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills in a 4,000 square foot house with running water, cable TV with 300 channels and central air-conditioning. Out here in this freezing hell he was out of his element.
Way out of his element.
"Quit the pity-party, Gary," he said, wiping tears away with the back of his hand, then grabbing a plate and filling it with a block of cheese and hunk of venison sausage that Ray McNealin had given him. "You need to eat then start a fire. You'll figure out something after that. You have to figure out something after that..."
He placed the plate, bottle, and lantern down on a large, ornately carved oak dinner that Donna had insisted they buy, no matter the extravagant price tag, and sat. His entire body ached and Gary felt decades older than his 43 years (but not when you were humpin' away on your 31 year old wife, right, Gary-boy? That sweet stuff was the best fountains of youth there is. Too bad it's Dougie that's now givin' her his meat stick!)
Gary pulled the comforter close, took a small bite of the venison sausage, then washed it down with another large gulp of the Armagnac. He had to focus, to stick to the task of getting a fire going before he froze to death, but it was so damn easy to dwell on his mistakes, on what-ifs and maybes, to get lost in the memories of how he ended up in a freezing cabin smack dab in the middle of the American equivalent of Siberia.
"You made bad choices," he said in a quiet, defeated voice, "or no choices at all. Just let stuff happen and hoped it would all turn all well." (And what'd your old man used to tell you? Hope in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up first!)
A small bite of cheese, then another long drink of the Armagnac, and the memories came flooding back like a crazy-quilt film festival, screen shots of 'this is your life Gary Alan Chandler'....
First scene: Gary met Donna at a local comic book store a week before Christmas. She was there to get something for her then-boyfriends 10-year old son. Gary was instantly drawn to her—as was any heterosexual male who had a heartbeat and cock—2 inches taller than his 5 foot 7 height, shoulder-length dark auburn hair, a finely featured face that held an easy Hollywood-white smile and sparkling green eyes that captivated Gary the moment he looked into them. He helped her pick up some comics (Spiderman and Batman, always solid choices), then, despite his usual shyness, walked her to her car, a 2016 Porsche Cayman (her boyfriend's car he would find out later), and in a burst of courage, gave her his business card. She took it, telling him that if she ever needed help in picking out comic books, she'd be sure to give him a call.
Which she did less than two months later on Valentine's Day.
Scene two: It was a world-wind romance, as Gary's deceased father would have said. Donna had called Gary and told him that she had broken up with her Porsche Cayman boyfriend and needed someone to talk to, that Gary seemed so kind and friendly at the comic store, and she hoped he didn't see as too forthcoming but would it be all right if they met for coffee and talked?
After two cups of de-caf and multiple drinks at a local bar, they ended up at Gary's house and fucked until the sun came up, then fucked some more. She was totally uninhibited, willing and wanting to do everything and anything sexually, and Gary was immediately in lust and love.
He learned a bit about her—after high school she was dancer at various strip clubs until she was 21, then a model for a semi-legit modeling agency out of Tampa, Florida for 5 years before giving it up, tired of the traveling and the constant sexual harassment. After coming back to Michigan, she had taken a job as hostess and employee manager at one of Detroit's newest upscale lounges where, she told Gary, she could "be myself and still be well-paid without having to suck and fuck every dick-head with a contract and cash."
Three month later, one week shy of Memorial Day, they were married.
Scene three: A month after their marriage, Gary received notice that the software company, where he was the well-paid lead design engineer, was sold to a multi-billion dollar conglomerate located in Shenzhen, China. The new company had offered to double Gary's salary if he moved to their newly built US headquarters in Mississippi.
"There's no way in hell I'm moving back south," Donna had said. "I've had my fill of rednecks." So, without further thought or consideration, Gary received a seven figure buyout of his contract and for the first time since he was twenty-four years old, became unemployed.
But you didn't care, did you, fat-boy? You were so hot for that hard-bodied bitch that you would have eaten a shit-sandwhich every morning and called it a gourmet breakfast!
For once, the malignant voice was right. Gary was so much in love with his voluptuous and care-free wife that he didn't think twice when Donna suggested they move to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a dark, cold land of trees, bears, and month after month of bitter, cold weather. "It's so beautiful in the UP," Donna had said, harking back to her childhood days when her mother used to take her camping in the northern woods," me and my Mom used to call it God's country. I bet you could go there, start your own software company and be the next Bill Gates."
In hindsight, Gary realized he was doomed from the start. Setting up his own business proved a thousand times more difficult then he had realized; his level of anxiety and frustration went up as his once-strong bank account went down. Donna was at first estactic in their rural abode but soon seemed to tire of the country life, and began to talk about taking cruises to the Caribbean, flights to Paris and Rome, anything to, as she put it, "get a taste of some real culture."
Which Gary could understand; he really could. What he couldn't do was financially sustain such a lifestyle when the money coming in was a trickle at best. It was then that their house-shaking arguments began and their once-active sex life slowed to a couple times a month, if that. Gary was at his wit's end on how to revive his life and his marriage and to appease his increasingly agitated wife complaints of boredom and no social life. As much as he detested social get-togethers, he decided that getting together with their nearest neighbors—the McNealins and Doug Freeman— might make Donna happy. Only in ways that Gary never imagined.
Doug was a twenty-seven year old laid-off iron-ore miner from Ispheming with a Hollywood actor's face and a Greek god's body who taught a wood-working class at the local High School, one which Donna enrolled in. Last night, Donna had invited him and the McNealins over for dinner. Gary spent the entire evening brooding as he watched the sly glances Donna gave to Doug. After the McNealins and Doug had left, Gary and Donna had another blow-up, complete with swearing, screaming, and accusations of infidelity from Gary and of paranoia and mental instability from Donna, cumulating in her packing her bags that morning and walking out. Gary had refused to give her keys to their land Rover, so she walked.
Out into the first winter storm of the year.
She'll come back, he had told himself. She has to. But she didn't, and after a few hours, with the storm increasing in its ferocity and the electricity in the house a memory — along with the light and heat — Gary decided to go after her.
He rummaged around in the kitchen cabinets until he found a working flashlight, then put on his heaviest winter coat, scarf, and brand-new leather driving gloves. At the back door he lit a kerosene lantern that Donna insisted they buy and placed it on the top shelf to provide another source of light for when he came back in, then went outside.
Gary's first breath of the freezing air burned his lungs and brought tears to his eyes. Snow blew about him in angry, white eddies as he moved out into the yard when he heard a loud crash! from the other side of the house. Gary plodded through the snow and around the corner; there, under the heavy weight of the wet snow sat their Land Rover, covered under the twisted steel and wood structure that used to be a carport, the bulk which had fallen on the hood and driver's side of the SUV. Gary took a deep breath, then began to pull on the twisted wreckage. He managed to remove the largest piece of the carport, and almost had the second piece off when a four by four-oak support beam slid from the roof and into him.
The impact was like the kick of an angry horse. Gary was thrown back and instantly swallowed by the snow. For a few seconds he didn't move, but then the pain in his leg burst to life like an exploding sun, and he pushed himself up and tried to stand. The agony in his leg was almost too much, an unseen force holding him to the ground, but if he didn't make it to the back door then he knew would die.
"But I made it," Gary muttered in the dark of the kitchen as he continued to drain the bottle of Armagnac. "I had the guts to push throw the pain, to do what I had to do, to make it back to the house, even though I was all alone..."
A new memory blossomed in his mind, not of Donna but a poem from his long-dormant childhood past that his Aunt Mildred would sing to him when he felt frightened and alone:
Alone in the woods
in the deep dark night,
under the stars, under
which show me the road,
which lift my fright,
and guide me to heaven. . .
Gary frowned; he couldn't remember the last line. He tried to concentrate, to pull it up from his addled mind, until a strange sound intruded him.
It wasn't the roar of the storm, or the sound of the snow hitting the cabin. This noise was rhythmic, drifting in and out like static from a dying radio.
He held his breath and strained to hear. A tapping. Like someone percussing out a steady, even beat. And it was coming from somewhere inside.
Gary ran his left hand through his short greying hair and loudly sighed, his breath coming out of his mouth in a plume of gray, like an ancient dragon huffing in impotent rage. What now? The tapping continued on and off in no discernible pattern. He almost blew it off but decided to investigate. You need to get up anyway and get the fire going. You also need to rewrap your hand. And do about a thousand other things before things from bad to very bad.
He limped into the hallway, holding out the hissing kerosene lantern in front of him like an ancient mariner on the deck of a ghost ship. To his right was his and Donna's bedroom, the study, and the bathroom. To the left was the living room. Gary stood still and quiet, his labored breathing and the intermittent roaring of the storm the only sounds permeating the cold air.
The tapping was gone.
It must have been the wind. Maybe a tree hitting the house, the old TV antenna blown down and smacking against a window, or —
Tap. Tap. Tap-tap-tap. It started again, slow then faster, coming from the living room.
It was the largest space in the house; rectangular in shape, the walls made of massive pine logs from forests long since decimated, with a huge stone fireplace that the previous owner had capped with a stuffed, snarling bobcat head. It was the first thing that Donna made him throw out when they moved in.
Gary stretched out his arm as far as it could go; the light from the kerosene lantern was meager and weak, darkness still holding tight onto most of the room. He squinted, trying to make out something, anything foreign that could be causing the sound, and wished for his flashlight buried somewhere in the snow.
"But that's as good as wishing for a generator. Or a job. Or having your wife back." Gary's voice sounded tiny and defeated. He hated it.
Tap-tap-tap-tap. Gary took two steps further into the room and held his breath. "It's coming from the fireplace," he finally spoke in a quiet voice, feeling foolish for speaking softly. But what was it? A fallen tree branch moving from a downdraft? "But there's a cover on the fireplace, right?" Is there? Or is that just another one of your asinine assumptions, like the one about your wife being faithful and loving rather then a sex-crazed slut with a thing for woodcutters with big logs?
Two more quick taps, then a few seconds of silence before starting up again. Gary finally saw it, on the edge of the smoky light, a flash of movement and shadow inside the darkened confines of the fireplace. He took a step back. If there was an animal in there, could it push its way out?
"No," Gary answered himself, "the panes on that fireplace are heavy and tight as hell, Donna made sure of that, said she didn't like drafty fireplaces..."
He squinted and cautiously moved toward the glass, then screamed and nearly dropped the lantern when a black mass slammed itself against the panes.
"It's a bird," Gary said. "There's a damned bird in my fireplace."
It wasn't a small bird, a sparrow or some such thing. It was black and big.
"How the hell did you get in my fireplace?"
The bird continued to intermittently tap, it's soulless black eyes never wavering from Gary.
"Now what do I do?" Gary said. Well, either open the fireplace and kill the fucking bird then start a fire, or sit back on your ass and do nothing like you've done your whole pathetic life.
"That's not true!" Gary countered, his voice angry and bitter. "I've done a lot, I put myself through college, I, I was successful as hell as a software designer, I—"
You're a loser, fat-boy, and now you're going to let a little bird put the final cold nail in your coffin!
Gary took a deep breath, held out the lantern, and stepped closer to the fireplace. Blood from the soaked t-shirt around his hand dripped to the floor and the crow seemed to become more excited, tapping harder and harder on the panes.
What the hell? Does it smell the blood? Can birds smell anything?
It's a fucking crow, dumb-ass, not a hawk or a vulture or a carnivorous monster from the Jurassic. It's got a brain the size of a damn pea. Just fucking kill it!
"It's only a bird," Gary said. "It's probably more scared of me than I am of it. Maybe if I just knock hard on the panes it'll go back up the chimney."
When Gary took a deep breath and moved toward the fireplace, the bird's beak attacked the panes with more vigor and beat its wings against the panes in union with it's tapping. Gary stepped back and as soon as he had moved away, the bird slowed its tapping.
"Fine. Stay in there and freeze to death."
The bird blinked its coal-black eyes once, twice, and then stepped back into the darkness of the fireplace.
Gary plodded into the bedroom, wrapped a goose-down comforter around himself, then back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. He sipped on the Armagnac, the bottle now half empty.
"You shouldn't drink anymore," he told himself. "I definitely don't want to get drunk." But the truth was—if he was being honest with himself, and wouldn't that be something new!—he did want to get drunk, to get shitfaced and pass out until this night was over and Donna was back in his arms and bed.
Except she's not coming back. She's at Dougies now, all warm and cozy in his cabin with its generator and lights and they're probably laughing their asses off when he's not burying his huge cock up her tight slit!
Taptap.. . .taptaptaptaptap. . .taptaptap. . .
"Shut up!" Gary screamed. Even under all the covers he could feel the cold work its relentless skeleton fingers into his shivering body. It was getting much colder, no doubt about it.
What if the electricity doesn't come back on, shithead? You really gonna die like a pathetic loser just cause you have some phobia about birds?
Gary took another drink from the bottle, then stood on shaking legs.
"You gotta do this. Do it or die."
Like a man walking to his execution, Gary went into the living-room. He was at the point of no return, like when he was a teenager and had decided to call for a date even if she hung up on him, even if she laughed at him. He'd use one of his big heavy blankets to throw over the bird as soon as he opened the panes. If it didn't come out, so much the better--he'd smother the crow right inside the fireplace then beat it to a pulp with the fireplace poker. As he gathered his strength, Gary realized that the tapping had stopped.
"Maybe you decided to leave," Gary said. "Maybe you died. But if you're not dead when I open those panes I guarantee you soon will be."
Three steps away from the fireplace, Gary put down the blanket and pushed the sputtering lantern toward the panes. It took him only a second to see, but it was a second that drained all the resolve from his soul. The fireplace now held at least a dozen crows, all staring at him with vacuous, unblinking eyes. They moved toward the light of the lantern, and began to tap, slow at first but then faster and louder.
"This can't be real," Gary moaned. "How can this be happening?" The birds answered by tapping even louder, a dozen beaks smashing like tiny jackhammers against the panes.
With the last of his resolve, Gary threw his blanket against the glass in an attempt to mute the sound of the birds. He stepped back and over the screaming of the wind could and swore he could hear the birds hiss at him, a dozen crazed and hateful voices. Gary stood in the near pitch-black darkness, the lantern now almost out of kerosene. Part of him wanted to stay there, to stand and scream at the top of his lungs until he was out of breath, out of oxygen, scream until the sunlight came and washed away all the darkness in his life.
Instead, he walked stiffly to the kitchen for the Armagnac then into his bedroom. He finished the bottle in five minutes, then passed out on the floor next to the bed just as crows stopped their tapping.
* * *
Gary stood in a large field of knee high grass and shivered. Gusts of cold wind buffeted him, cutting through his baggy t-shirt and torn jeans; he crossed his arms tight over his skinny, thirteen year-old chest to try and stay warm. Why didn't I wear a jacket? he thought, then just as quickly wondered why he would need a jacket in the middle of July in Kentucky. He looked around the rolling hills of his Uncle Jake's and Aunt Mildred's farm, then felt a thick layer of unease descend upon him when he realized he couldn't remember coming outside, or walking into the fields, or—
"Hey Gary, you gonna stand there holding your weenie all day or are you gonna come and help me find Jackson?"
The loud voice behind him took Gary out of his thoughts. He turned to see his short, portly, fourteen year old cousin Lenny standing at the base of one of the hills.
Gary took off in a sprint, running full out in the crunching grass, enjoying the feelings of abandon and freedom that the speed brought to him. Gary felt so alive, even as the cold wind rushed through his hair and across his face, making his eyes water and cheeks burn.
"I'm here," he said when he reached Lenny. "What's up with Jackson? Did he take off after some bunny again?" Jackson was his cousin's beagle, a loud, boisterous dog that lived for two things: to chase rabbits and cuddle in the lap of whoever would have him.
Lenny, strangely dressed to Gary in a faded brown leather jacket and matching snowmobile pants, crossed his arms and starred at his cousin with piercing black eyes.
"What's going on, Lenny? Where's Jackson?" Gary tried to take a step back but he couldn't, his legs suddenly immobile, his feet seemingly frozen to the ground.
"What do you mean?" Lenny said in a dark, monotone voice. "Jackson is right here."
Gary again tried to move, and again he was unable to do so. "I thought you said you needed help finding him," he said, his voice barely a whisper over the howling wind.
"He's-fucking-right-here!" Lenny roared, stepping off to the side and pointing to the ground.
In a small, circular space devoid of grass, lay Jackson. His white and brown body was torn apart, intestines and internal organs laying scattered about like broken, bloody toys. Maggots the size of large worms undulated in Jackson's steaming guts, and in the next instant a crow was suddenly standing on top of the dog's body, its sharp beak glistening like a black diamond in the light of the setting sun. The bird looked up at Gary with dead eyes, then, like a rattlesnake striking a cornered rat, it snapped down and tore out the bloated tongue of the dog. The crow made two quick jerks of its head and the piece of meat disappeared down its throat.
"What's the matter, Gary?" Lenny asked in a sickly sweet voice. "You look kinda sick." Lenny squatted down beside the prostrate body of the dog and stroked its bloated body. "Hey, maybe you're hungry. I bet that's it." With one lazy motion, Lenny scooped up a handful of writhing maggots and shoved them in Gary's face. "C'mon now, don't be shy—it's bad manners to refuse food from your kin."
Gary wanted to scream, to shove away the stinking, living mass of larvae which his cousin held inches from his mouth and nose, but a total paralysis had taken hold of him.
"I'm hurt," Lenny said. "I offer to share food with you and you snub me." He cocked his head in jerky motions, still staring with lifeless eyes at Gary.
"What's that saying?" Lenny continued. "Something about a cat having your tongue?" He nudged the crow, which looked up at him. "I think they got it wrong though— it not a cat who's gonna have your tongue!"
And then the crow spread open its wings, expertly caught a gust of freezing wind, and rose slowly in the air like a feathered magician. It levitated in front of Gary, so close that he could see clearly into its eyes, black, soulless orbs that held a malicious hunger. Gary tried to move, to yell, to do anything, but only continued to stand in mute terror as the sound of the screaming wind and crazed laughter from his cousin filled his ears.
The crow's beak lightly brushed up against Gary's cheek like the caress of a lover; it was freezing cold and burned his flesh like a long sliver of dry ice. The crow jerked its head towards Gary's ear, and he heard a voice coming from its beak, a voice, deep and seductive, the voice of Doug Freeman. "I'm comin' inside, boy, I'm comin' inside," the Doug Freeman crow-voice said over and over like a scratched CD.
Gary finally managed to scream as the crow's razor-sharp beak viciously dug into the soft flesh of his outer ear.
* * *
Gary awoke from the nightmare to the sound of his teeth chattering furiously. He pushed himself up with his good hand and leaned against the bed, his body raked with uncontrollable shivering. His head pounded from the Armagnac and his bladder felt close to bursting. With shaking hands he pulled whatever covers were left on the bed and wrapped them around himself.
Taking two deep breaths, he stood up. Feeble light shone through the windows, giving everything in the room an ethereal, unreal glow. What day was it? Tomorrow? The next day?
"It doesn't fuckin' matter," he muttered, his mouth dry and tasting like shit. "I gotta...I gotta piss then will figure things out..."
Gary stumbled out of the bedroom and into the bathroom and would have achieved his one goal of not pissing his pants if the pipes underneath the sink hadn't burst and covered the floor with water that had turned into very slick ice. His right leg flipped up like a clown at a circus and his injured left leg followed. Gary slammed hard onto the frozen tiles, clipping his forehead on the edge of the sink. The fall knocked his breath away lungs and as he lay gasping on the frozen floor, his full bladder released. Blood pooled around his face from the jagged slash on his forehead, his pants steamed from the urine, and his left leg screamed out in silent agony.
"Fuck you," he croaked, his voice almost inaudible over the still-present sound of the storm. "Fuck...you..."
It was no use. Gary was spent, defeated, dying of hypothermia in a pool of his own piss and blood. He closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable touch of death.
The tapping grew louder, as if excited by Gary's imminent demise. And then, Gary heard it. An undercurrent of sound, something not born of the howling winter winds or crazed avian minds.
Gary wiped away the blood from the eyes and slowly, painfully, sat up and listened more intently. He could hear them, laughter, a cold, malicious sound, coming from the living-room. Laughter at Gary's life, at all his failures and soon-to-be death.
"Fuck you." He grabbed the sink with his left hand and pulled himself up.
Fuck you!" he screamed, and it was a great and wonderful release, like slicing open an infected boil.
"Fuck-YOU!" he roared with white-hot passion and anger. Maybe the crow with the voice of Doug Freeman had killed and eaten Jackson, but it wouldn't kill and eat him. Not today or ever.
He stumbled into the living-room, now cast in a weak yellow light. "You think you've won, don't you?" he yelled at the fireplace. The blanket he had placed over the panes the night before had fallen off, and Gary could see the fireplace was absolutely packed with birds, so much so that the entire structure bulged in and out, like a solitary black lung of a giant.
Gary squatted, starring into the dozens of black, unblinking eyes behind the furious beaks. He grabbed the fireplace poker and tapped gently pack on the panes. "You're not winning. I'm a genius, a certified grade-A fucking genius, and I've got the perfect plan for all of you!"
In the utility room he gathered Donna's old bike helmet, her wood working goggles, hand-ax, a box of matches, and every aerosol can they had; paint, deodorant, air freshener, his arms full of metal cans. Back in the living room he pulled down all the drapes from the windows and cleared out a large, circular area of furniture, paper, anything that could catch on fire in the living room.
The tapping of beaks and beating of wings increased, louder and more frantic. Gary tore one of his blankets into crude, wide strips and wrapped them around his hands and face. He reached up on the fireplace mantel next to his wedding picture and grabbed a heavy rectangular-shaped ingot. "Donna got this for me in Copper Harbor," he said to the birds, a brief memory rising up in his addled mind. "She said it would bring me luck."
The picture stayed in his mind, standing with his stunning new bride on the shores of Lake Superior, watching the sunset, crimson and gold shimmering off the gently rolling waves of the lake, holding each other close and—
Gary slammed the copper ingot hard into the helmet, hearing plastic —
(Or was that bone?)
— crack as he dropped to his knees.
"Gotta stay focused," he mumbled, his words slurred as he took some deep breaths and then stood slowly up, feeling dizzy and weak but with the memories safely knocked away. "Its time...time for the show."
Gary tenderly placed the ingot down on the couch, then, after lighting a match, grabbed an aerosol can and pushed down on the button, the spray igniting into a foot and a half long yellow-blue flame.
"You want some shit? Then come and get some!" he screamed at the fireplace, then threw the copper ingot with all his might at the glass. The two rectangular panes exploded outward in a gleaming shower and released the birds in a frenzied rush of beaks, feathers and claws that headed straight for Gary.
The greater part of the shit lasted for five hours.
Gary killed the last crow with his bare hands. He squeezed it tight, felt bones snap and viscera pop even as the bird's talons embedded themselves like fishhooks into his exposed forearms. Gary brought the bird close to his face.
"I remember now, Doug," he said, like speaking to his lover after a bout of passionate sex. "I remember how the poem goes. Want to hear?"
The bird said nothing, blood and shit squirting out of its cloaca, as Gary squeezed it tighter.
"I'll tell you anyway," Gary said as the bird ceased it's struggling.
"Alone in the woods
in the deep dark night,
under the stars, under
which show me the road,
which life my fright,
and guide me to heaven
with warm sunlight."
"With warm sunlight," he repeated and smiled broadly through busted teeth and bleeding gums at the dead bird. He kissed it tenderly on its beak, then let its carcass join the other bodies of the dead crows that littered the floor like beer cans at an outdoor rock concert.
Gary stood for a moment in the middle of the carnage and surveyed the living room, redolent with odors of ignited paint and deodorant, of shit, sweat, and blood. He was bleeding from dozens of tears and lacerations all over his body, and couldn't see out of one eye, but all in all he felt damn good. He had done what needed to be accomplished, no matter the consequences, for the first time in his life.
I need new clothes," Gary spoke, then slowly walked into his bedroom. He paused to look into the mirror over his dresser; it took him a few long seconds to realize the face he was staring at was his own. The thing in the reflection resembled a surrealistic deaths-head mask more than the face of a human being. Long, jagged tears ran in a crazy-quilt pattern over blood-caked skin. Cracked and broken teeth smiled out of a mouth only half-way covered by shredded remains of lips, and the right eye of the face seemed deflated and shrunken, hanging half-way out of the socket over a macerated cheek.
Gary felt light-headed and sat down on the bed. "Some fresh air, that's what I need," he croaked, then stumbled through the gore of the living room and opened the front door.
The storm was over, leaving a clear sky and brilliant sun. Gary gulped in huge lung-fulls of clean, icy-cold air and gazed across the horizon with his one good eye, the sunlight shimmering off the newly fallen perfectly white snow, giving the entire scene the appearance of heaven on earth.
And then it came to him: Donna had been right. This was God's country. But not the God of the New Testament, the God of love and forgiveness. It was the old God, the God of anger and vengeance, and it had been He who had brought the birds to Gary's cabin, just as He had brought down the locusts and plagues to Egypt millennia ago. The night had been a test, Gary knew, a brutal test for his cowardly life of indecision and compromises.
But I passed the test. I survived the punishment.
He went back inside. "What am I going to do with you?" he said to the dead birds, then noticed some envelopes scattered over the fireplace hearth.
Gary picked up the envelopes and was surprised to see the first one was blank except for his name. He tore it open.
Gary — You're probably reading this letter on Friday morning,
assuming you've remembered to put the bills out in the mail. By
now I should be well on my way to the Florida Keys with Doug
Freeman. I want you to know that he and I are still just
friends, and he has helped me try to work through the conflicting
feelings I have for you. I met him behind the McNealin's barn last night —
(of course that's what she did. That's why she was so cavalier about walking, in fact she was probably in Dougie's truck even before I finally decided to go after her)
— and that's where he picked me up.
I won't bore you with the reasons for my leaving, but I am tired of
Michigan. I am tired of the gloom and cold, and Gary, this hurts me to say
this, but I am tired of your worsening, erratic behavior and
unwillingness to do anything about it. With a loan
that I took from my savings account —
(our savings, Donna, and if you get right down to it, my savings)
— Doug is going to start up a charter fishing operation in the Keys. I hope you get the help you need, Gary; deep down I believe you're a good man, but just not the right one for me.
Gary let the letter fall from his hands. A large smile worked its way across his shredded face as he casually began throwing the birds in the fireplace until it was full with bloody, broken bodies. He re-lit one of the aerosol cans and began moving the flame back and forth across the bodies in wide, even movements. The heat from the flame felt wonderful on his cold skin, and he imagined the heat from the sun in the Florida Keys would feel even better.
"Alone in the Woods in the Deep Dark Night" published in The Half That You See by AM Ink Publishing. Copyright 2019 by Edward R. Rosick. All Rights Reserved.