He stood in the snow behind the complex, looking at a tangled mess of woods that encircled the nearby frozen lake. The temperature had finally ticked up a notch, but he still found himself shaking. When he had brought the rock down in the supply closet, the mouse’s innards had shot through its small, hairy abdomen as if propelled by a canon. Steaming blood, viscera and tiny bits of hair and flesh had streaked across the floor, leaving marks that remained even when he scrubbed at them later with a soapy rag.
He pulled back his snowflake-covered arm and felt the weight of the gore-encrusted stone in his hand. He grunted and chucked the blunt object into the brambles, disturbing a bird which squawked in alarm before launching itself into the black, wintery sky.
He started trudging back towards the complex, pushing forward with a new path through drifts of snow. He intentionally ignored the trail of foot prints that indicated his earlier steps, preferring the frigid, wet, mildly painful sensations imparted by the snow that was seeping into his boots. The night was reaching its toughest stretch: the dreaded hours between 4 and 6 a.m., and the discomfort from the snow kept him conscious and distracted. His experience with the mouse had disturbed and depressed him, a fact he felt somewhat embarrassed about. His hands were still shaking, and these negative emotions exacerbated his preexisting fatigue, vampirically sapping what little remained of his strength and spirit.
Nearing the complex, he stopped short. He was walking parallel to the footprints he had made when he initially walked out to dispose of the bloody stone. Near the parking lot, the path went in a different direction, circling around the nearest complex building. Looking closely, he could see that it spiraled away down a slight decline towards another section of the frozen lake.
He didn’t know why, but the new path filled him with excitement and dread. He hadn’t seen or heard anyone else walking near him. Even though the wind was still howling, the sound of human feet crunching and shifting through snow should have still been audible.
Part of him desperately wanted to keep trudging towards the office, where he knew he could shut the door, fire up YouTube and wait out the night. But another part wanted to change course and follow this strange, unexplored pathway, despite having no knowledge of where it might lead. The night’s apex had passed, but it still felt like its shadows were growing. The complex’s buildings had also become warped and ominous. On one level, he knew they were still the square, squat utterly banal shapes they had always been. But, due to him feeling almost punch drunk from tiredness, and with the darkness of the night and falling snow covering them, they appeared distorted and threatening, like ghoulish, looming bunkers full of dead and dying things.
He then stopped thinking and walked onto the new path, leaving the comforting albeit harsh light that streamed from the front entrance of the nearest, hulking complex building. Flakes of snow swirled around him, and the night was surreally quiet, the only exception being the muted crunches of his footprints and his slow and steady breathing.
Despite having worked at the complex for months, he had never been to this area before. The footprints he was following began to slope downward toward the lake. After a few seconds, the ground began to level off, and dark shapes slowly separated from the inky sludge of the night. An ancient-looking playground spread out before him. Sad, neglected monkey bars were closest, and right away he could see they were unfit for use. In fact, they probably needed to be condemned. The frost-coated poles were battered and rusted, years past their prime. A few steps beyond, a hulking tower and slide sat lost underneath a mountain of snow. What he could make out, however, gave him a chill. The slide’s sides were course and rough, and the poles of the tower were dented and scratched beyond belief. The adjacent seesaw was in even worse condition. One side had completely broken off, leaving a jagged, splintered edge that evoked the idea of wooden mandibles.
Walking through this forgotten landscape, he began to chuckle. The laughter started low and quiet but slowly began to build, until he was flat out guffawing. He couldn’t stop himself, and his unhinged peals rang out crisply in the frigid night air. Everything was absurd, especially his own miserable emotions. He had come into being when everything was possible and nothing was sensible – where old paradigms, in place for generations, were eroding with unstoppable and ever-increasing speed. Eventually, his laughter began to fade, and he found himself once again in a dark hole of rumination.
He looked down at the trail of prints and shook his head. Paths, both theoretical and tangible, were such an integral part of his life. But what was there to do about it? He had obediently played his role. He had embodied his part. But it hadn’t paid off. He had postured in all the ways that were supposed to indicate something about himself. Because what was he if not a type, a demographic whose prospects precluded his birth? And what was he if hadn’t been able to fulfill this type, despite having diligently traversed a culturally-prescribed road.
She had gone somewhere, and had done so seemingly devoid of fear and hesitation. It hadn’t been the easy choice, or one precipitated by obligation. He couldn’t tap into this mindset, as it felt nearly astral in origin. He simply couldn’t understand her level of self-confidence; it was so starkly different from his own. Unlike him, she made decisions not because someone wanted her to or because it was the right thing to do, but because it was something she had to do.
Try as he might, he had never been able to shake himself free of the resentment this elicited. In fact, he had often felt bitter and irascible towards her, towards her self-assurance. Even months and months later, he was still hanging on to this. It had always been a wedge between them.
Walking past the last of the playground, he ran a gloved hand over the remains of a crusty roundabout that had slumped off its axis sometime in the last century. He then entered the woods, pushing aside thin branches and stepping over fallen trees, continuing his downward descent. On the right, he saw the faint outline of a large, chalk-white drainage pipe. It ran in a deep groove in the hill, but about ten feet below he could see that it was broken into several distinctive pieces, as if it had been shelled. Two massive pieces had crashed further down the ravine, flattening a number of small trees and bushes. Smaller pieces of concrete also littered the hillside, sticking out of the snow in whimsical angles.
Pushing past the rest of trees, he walked onto the grey shoreline and looked out across the frozen lake, which was largely hidden by mounds of snow. He felt lonely and sad, tired and helpless. His head felt foggy and engorged, and his arms hung at his side as if they were filled with cement. He was cold inside and out, and his eyes were blurry and compromised. Looking up towards the sky, he could see the faint light of a few stars, which were glimmering in a void horrific in its vastness.
There was no fixing it. When she moved to New York he had been hurt and frustrated. Being a strident Type-A, he had desperately wanted to find some sort of solution, one that would eventually facilitate a reunion. But none came. They never came close. The distance did not make any hearts grow fonder, and eventually mutual resentment was all they had left.
He crouched down on the shoreline and dug his hands into the snow, burrowing deep until they collided with the unyielding surface of the ice. His eyes drifted over the snow, which sat piled on the lake like blue and black sand-dunes, growing steadily larger with each descending snowflake. He knew that she was still inside of him, and that this was both bad and good, a pro and a con, a boon and a crippling force. It made things easier in a certain sense, but in the end it was an unsustainable way to live.
The past was always going to feel better. One could exist there, ensconced in subjective memories of affirmation, warmth, love and safety. But such conceptions of the past and future were, to some extent, illusions, continually filtered through the distorting prism of consciousness. They lived and died on a moment to moment basis, attached to a present which itself was almost deliriously ephemeral. What, then, was the point of any of it? He hadn’t thought too much about it before now, only grasping at bits and pieces during the course of his college education. It hadn’t clicked that perhaps the present encompasses everything, and that it is enormously fragile. One can have love one minute and lose it the next, or end a normal day by dying brutally for no reason at all.
“Goodbye,” he murmured under his breath, almost involuntarily.
Such a statement was silly and frivolous, accomplishing nothing of real or tangible value. Like so much of what he said, it was trite, bordering on a cinematic cliche that was working its way through him. He didn’t often recognize this, but when he did he only occasionally felt embarrassed. Undeniable comfort also came from sprouting such platitudes, comparable to rewatching a favorite television program for the umpteenth time or rediscovering a childhood meal.
Something moved in the corner of his eye. A dark shape, a shadow, was crashing out of the woods on the opposite side of the lake. Largely shrouded by blackness, it was difficult to make out specifics. Human? Animal? He couldn’t tell. Eventually, the shape reached the shoreline and stood fully erect, and he could see that it was, in fact, humanoid. Anxiety curled around his body due to the strangeness of its sudden arrival. The figure had come from the side of the lake where there were no housing developments or easy access points. On that side of the lake the woods stretched out for nearly a mile, running up to and finally underneath the massive cement pillars elevating I-494. It was a thick and aggressive expanse of bucolic fury, with brier patches and swampy morasses dotting the landscape.
He blinked and wiped at his eyes just to ensure that he wasn’t seeing things. This wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. He had once been so tired doing a night shift that the grooves of the office door began resembling live snakes, slithering and withering about on the oaken surface.
This time the apparition felt genuinely real. But that didn’t change the fact that its sudden appearance defied explanation, so much that it bordered on the uncanny. He shuddered to think about its journey through those haunting groves of trees, with thorns ripping at its skin and unyielding snow stymieing its progress.
He also recoiled at the figure’s static pose. It stood silently, approximately halfway between the opposite shoreline and its dark wall of trees. Squinting into the darkness, he was struck by how tall, thin and disturbing the form was. It was easily over six feet tall, probably couldn’t weigh more than 140 pounds, and its arms and legs appeared narrow and bony, almost skeletal in nature. It was turned squarely in his direction, meaning that its eyes – if it had eyes – were also squarely trained on him.
Of course it has eyes, he thought to himself, disturbed by the thought’s peculiarity. Then his heart seized with terror. The figure had begun moving forward. One step. Then another. Then another. He began to back up. Overhead, the sky had cleared, revealing brilliant stars whose overpowering illumination made them more closely resemble planets. The figure was now on the ice, effortlessly gliding through the snow as if it was not even there. He stumbled backwards and fell hard onto his back, biting his tongue and tasting blood.
“YOU SHOULDN’T BE WALKING ALONE AT NIGHT!”
The figure was screaming at him and had picked up its pace, careening across the lake. His fear was rising, sapping his brain, making it difficult to think. Adrenaline surged through his appendages, begging for immediate release. Clawing his way back to his feet, he gasped with something approaching panic, eyes wide and rolling in distress.
“YOU SHOULDN’T BE WALKING ALONE AT NIGHT!”
He tore backwards, putting his hands over his face and crashing into the woods that led upwards towards the complex. Small twigs snapped across his body as he flung himself forward. His knee slammed against a stump. The smell of iron assailed his nose. Inside his frenzied brain, he thought that the shape must have certainly made it across the lake by now. At any moment a wasted arm would wrap itself around his throat and pull him back onto the snow-covered ice.
But nothing came. After about a minute, he burst through the tree line and took off running towards the location of the office. His throat raw and burning, his mind dazed, he sprinted headlong through the ugly memory of a playground. Looking back, he was relieved and elated to see that nothing and no one was pursuing him. But he didn’t slow down. He kept running, his legs cutting through the drifts, pushing them aside like a ship’s bow through the sea. Above him, the luminous stars stared down with cosmic indifference, while continuing on with their endless and celestial revolutions.