Elliot sat on the front porch of his mother’s house tying his shoes. His hands had been shaking since he woke up, and the only thing he could focus on was tying the shoe and getting to Mary’s as fast as possible. He pulled two loops into a knot, but one of them went all the way through, completely unraveling the portion he had just tied.
“Fuck this,” he said out loud and jumped off the porch and ran towards his car. That shoe would just have to stay untied.
His mother had told him to feed Rocky, his fifteen-pound tabby cat, but Rocky was nowhere to be seen. He was probably out in the woods behind the house where he spent most of his time in the dense shade of the pine trees. Elliot paused before getting into the truck, debating whether or not to look for the cat, but the need to get to Mary’s was become more urgent by the second, and he hopped in the truck and backed down the driveway.
It took Elliot about ten minutes to get across town from his mother’s house to the apartment Mary lived in by herself. Elliot knocked on Mary’s door twice. As he waited for an answer, he let his eyes wander absently across the door. It had been painted red at least twenty years ago, and the paint was now peeling off in big flakes. Several times while waiting for Mary to answer the door, he had helped the flakes with their peeling, pulling off tiny strips of paint and dropping them until he had a nice pile by his feet.
He knocked again, and the brass number 9 that hung on one nail rattled against the frame. He was on the verge of knocking again, when the door swung open.
Ian opened the door, and Elliot could tell he was already high. His pupils were huge, and the muscles in his face seemed frozen in a half-smile. His skin, which was naturally pale and clammy, was beaded in sweat, and his blonde hair stuck in clumps to his forehead. Upon seeing Elliot, his smile tried to force itself wider, and he held out a hand to Elliot.
“My man,” he said, and Elliot took his hand, drawing him in for a hug.
“Took you long enough to answer the door,” Elliot said, already walking towards the kitchen.
“I didn’t hear you knock but the once, man,” Ian said. Elliot could tell from the smile in his voice that it was a lie. It didn’t really matter.
Mary’s apartment was a simple four-room layout. When he first walked through the door, he was in the living room, which was separated from the kitchen to the left by a plastered half-wall. Beyond the kitchen and living room were two bedrooms. The carpet was originally beige, but was now more salt and pepper. Ashes and burn marks marred the surface, as well as stains from spilled beverages and streaks of mud from visitors not wiping their shoes off. The ceiling was stucco, and there were several holes in it from the three of them excitedly throwing pencils into it, trying to see if Agent Mulder could have really done it that easily in all those episodes of the X-Files.
Mary was sitting on the counter next to a stove. She didn’t appear to be wearing any pants, just a huge Charlotte Hornets sweatshirt that swallowed her small frame down to her knees, and a pair of black Doc Martens. Mary was twenty-four, three years older than Elliot and Ian. Elliot had known her briefly in high school, but didn’t really meet her until his first year of college. Mary had been a sophomore, but as far as he could remember, Elliot had never seen her go to a class or heard her even mention school. After that year Mary had moved back to Sanford, and Elliot only saw her on occasions like this during breaks from school.
Mary was an enigma to many people, Elliot not withstanding. She claimed that she had worked as a high-dollar escort for wealthy men, that she had starred in several artsy soft-core porn films, that she was once engaged to a Columbian drug lord, and that her family was connected to the Mafia. Elliot was almost positive that every bit of that was a lie, or at least an exaggeration of the truth (he was pretty sure she had been selling herself, just not to the part of society she claimed), but where all of her money came from really didn’t concern him. The lies would start to bother him if he let himself ponder it too long, but generally Mary’s cocked smile, warm personality, and constant supply of drugs made him ignore all of that. She was a fluid being, and the impression of her presence was more valuable and desirable than the reality underneath it.
Mary leaned back and held her arms open for an embrace when she saw Elliot. He hugged her and lifted her off the counter, then spun her around so that she was standing in front of him.
“Mr. Elliot,” she said with a grin, and kissed him on the cheek. “Do I have a surprise for you!”
“I’m excited,” Elliot said. His eyes drifted to the stovetop. One of the burners was on, and a large silver spoon lay smoking on top of it.
“Ian, bring me the bag,” Mary shouted as she picked up a piece of paper from the counter and began rolling it into a cone. Elliot noticed that his foot had started tapping repeatedly on the linoleum floor of the kitchen. His body was already getting excited.
Ian came into the kitchen with a small baggie and took out a white rock about the size of his pinky nail. He broke it into three pieces and put them all in the spoon. Mary handed the paper cone to Elliot and nodded towards the spoon. He took the cone and placed the largest end over the spoon.
As the crack dissolved into vapors, Elliot could see a swirling cloud form inside the paper cone. He turned the stove down and put his mouth to the small end of the cone and inhaled. The smoke was hot and heavy in his lungs, but as the burn worked it’s way through his muscles, so did a serpentine uncurling of his tension. He leaned against the half-wall in the kitchen and exhaled the smoke. As soon as it had left his mouth, the world started to creep away from him.
His throat and mouth were completely numb, and his skin was buzzing. His muscles felt like they had been totally unwound, as if his body were made of strands of ribbon. He closed his eyes, letting the feeling totally envelope him.
Elliot opened his eyes and stumbled to the couch. He sunk down into the torn and frayed pleather and smiled deliriously at Ian, who was slumped beside him. Spots and clouds of color drifted aimlessly across the room. The smell of grass, fireflies, cones of light. The shadows of insects as they flew past open doors during the summertime. It all came over Elliot in the form of suggestion, nostalgia being processed by his drug-addled mind and projected into the bleak, dusty living room in front of him. The numbness and tingling devoured his flesh, and his bones breathed it in.
Elliot and Ian had met when they were five years old, both of their parent’s members of Hot Springs Baptist Church. They had practically grown up together. In high school, they had started a band. Elliot played the bass, Ian played the drums, and Ian’s brother Jordan had played the guitar. They spent almost everyday after school practicing at Ian and Jordan’s house. When Elliot left for college, the band broke up, but Elliot and Ian remained close. Elliot felt a sense of responsibility for Ian, which nowadays manifested itself primarily as guilt. Everything that Elliot had done, Ian was right there, following him into the drug-fueled depths of the recent year.
Ian put his hand on Elliot’s knee and began to laugh. Elliot looked at him. He pictured Ian two years ago, still a healthy weight, back when he laughed almost all the time, not just when he was high. He wondered how much he himself had changed. Ian never said anything about it, and his parents didn’t seem to notice either. His dad worked throughout most of the week, so when Elliot was home he didn’t see him much. His mother seemed to have little to no clue about his drug use. She knew he had begun smoking pot in high school, but as far as she knew that was it.
Ian laid his head back and took his hand off of Elliot’s knee. “Mary,” he said lazily, “this is the best shit you’ve had in a minute. How much did it cost?”
Elliot heard Mary cough behind him and say in a strained voice, “Why do you care? You don’t buy it.”
Ian laughed again and nodded in agreement, then lit a cigarette. Elliot felt his pocket begin to vibrate and had a moment of confusion before realizing that it was his phone. He took a deep breath and sighed, ignoring the phone.
Ten years earlier, when Elliot was eleven, his uncle Charlie had slipped into his second coma. The doctors said that this one might be “the one”, and that the family should prepare themselves for the worst. They had already been on bended knee for two years, begging for God to heal him, for Charlie to be Charlie once again.
Elliot’s family had been a member of Hot Springs Baptist church, along with Ian’s family. At one particular Sunday service, the congregation held a thirty-minute prayer vigil for Charlie. Elliot sat on the front pew beside Ian, who was tracing temporary masterpieces in the velvet seat with his finger. The church had printed up a bunch of brochures with a picture of Charlie on the front. It was an older picture, when Charlie’s face still had a healthy amount of fat, and his even, porcelain smile stretched ear to ear.
Elliot couldn’t stand the picture. It reminded him of how things were before “the accident”, as his family referred to it. It was still years before he would be able to clearly understand what had happened to Charlie, but he had gleaned enough from overheard conversations between his parents to know that it was not really an accident. He rolled the brochure into a cone idly in his hands, and felt his eyes burn with tears. He clenched his eyelids together and prayed in silence for the rest of the service. He didn’t pray for his uncle to get better, which to him seemed to be a ridiculous notion, but rather that death would end his misery.
Mary was hunched over the stove, and to Elliot she looked like a brooding phantom. They had finished all of the large rocks, and Mary was now scrounging up as much of the remaining dust as possible and piling it in the middle of the spoon. She had taken her last hit about ten minutes before, and was wildly disconnected from the rest of the room. Her back was hunched, her black hair dangling about the sides of her face, and her ghostly frail legs protruded down from the sweater into the boots like contrails.
Elliot and Ian were sitting on the living room couch, and Ian was watching a History Channel show about how aliens had actually helped our Founding Fathers draft the Constitution. One of the only skeptical guys on TV was doing a voiceover while the screen showed images of George Washington and Ben Franklin at a table with some grey aliens Photoshopped in.
“I mean what’s next, 9/11 was aliens? The dinosaurs were killed by aliens? I mean, how far are you going to push it?” the guy on TV said.
Elliot’s phone began vibrating again, and he slid it out of his pocket. It was a text from his mother that said ‘You need to come home NOW.’ Elliot furrowed his brow and flipped through the phones menu to the missed calls. He had ten from his mother. She never called him that often, and never told him to come home.
He stood up and lit a cigarette. “I’ll be right back,” he said, but neither Mary nor Ian acknowledged him. He walked outside and leaned against the crumbling wooden handrail on Mary’s stoop. He dialed his mother and took a deep breath. She answered on the second ring.
“Elliot…you need to come home,” she said, her voice trembling. Elliot felt his chest tighten.
“What’s going on mom? Are you ok?” he asked. At that she let out a deep sob and sniffled.
“It’s…oh, Elliot…it’s Rocky…” she said with a trembling slew of syllables, “he got hurt. I…I don’t think he’s going to make it,” she said, and began to sob uncontrollably. Elliot felt instantly sober. The tingling left his flesh, and the warmness in his bones with it. His body felt cold, hard, back in reality once again. He dropped his cigarette and stomped it out with his foot.
“I’m on the way right now,” he said, and he hung up the phone. He glanced back at Mary’s door, and then decided to just leave.
Seven years ago, on Elliot’s fourteenth birthday, his parents had brought Rocky home. He was still only a few pounds, and when they handed him to Elliot, he clung around his neck and dug his claws in, refusing to move. Elliot had held the little grey ball for almost the entire first week, even feeding him warm water from a tiny bottle.
His uncle Charlie had come out of the coma, but his condition was far from amiable. During his stay at the VA Hospital, he had rapidly deteriorated. Elliot’s grandparents used to say that it was the VA’s fault. They said that they didn’t know an IV from a hole in their ass, but Elliot didn’t know what any of that really meant. All he knew was that almost every weekend his family made the one hour drive to his grandparents home to see Charlie, who now lived with them.
Charlie had lost over a hundred pounds, and weighed about eighty on a good day. A series of strokes had left him semi-paralyzed. His arms were permanently curled up to his chest, though he could move them side-to-side. His shaved head seemed to always hang at an angle down towards his chest as well. He had lost his teeth due to infection during his stay at the VA, and it gave his face the sunken-in look of a cadaver.
Elliot would spend hours beside his uncle, talking about cars and football, and whatever else he could think of that Charlie used to like. Though his uncle had trouble speaking, he still tried. It was always a struggle for the family to decipher what he was saying, and they could all see the frustrated look in Charlie’s eyes – the brief flashes of awareness when he realized that no one could understand him. It was in these moments that Elliot would feel that sudden connection to Charlie. It was like a realization that swam into Charlie’s eyes and screamed underneath his jumbled cacophony of words – I’m trapped in here, but I’m not gone.
The week after getting Rocky, Elliot’s family went on one of their weekly visits. Elliot had brought Rocky and when he put him in Charlie’s lap, the cat had curled up in a ball in his bony lap and started purring. Charlie’s face lit up in a smile, one of those rare smiles that Elliot had loved so much, and it stayed that way, unfaltering, for the remainder of the visit.
Shortly before they left, his uncle had looked him hard in the eyes while smiling. He did that often, and Elliot would stare back, struggling to figure out what wonderful thing was on Charlie’s mind. With the best pronunciation and clarity Elliot had heard him use in years, he said “Elliot, I love you. I love you.”
Elliot’s mother was waiting for him on the front porch of the house. It was a two-story brick house, and the front porch was white concrete and grey brick. Four concrete columns lined the front, and in between each was a rocking chair. She was in one of the rocking chairs, her face red and weary from crying. Sunlight illuminated only the bottom half of her face, as if she was wearing a shadow veil. Elliot could see the summer gnats drifting and swirling in mechanical bliss, haloing his mother’s head. Elliot shifted into park before he had come to a complete stop, jeering him forward. He flung open the door and ran up to the porch.
“Where is he?” Elliot said, scanning the porch.
“Elliot, he’s inside. Sit down, please,” his mother said, lightly grabbing his wrist. “He didn’t make it. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell you over the phone.”
Elliot shook his hand free and looked at his mother. “What do you mean? Didn’t make it? What didn’t he make it from? What happened? He was fine when I left,” Elliot felt his head getting light and his chest wrenching itself into coils.
“I’m…I’m not sure. Something attacked him. You know how he was, how adventurous he was, always chasing bigger animals. Dogs, foxes. The vet said it looked like a coyote is what got him,” she said softly.
“You took him to the vet?” Elliot asked. He was feeling very hot.
“A little bit after you left I came outside. He was trying to jump up in the rocking chair, but he couldn’t do it. He wasn’t crying or anything…” she stopped and took a deep breath, trying not to cry. “I went to pick him up, and I could see his right leg. It was was huge, all swollen. It didn’t look real. I took him to the vet, and she said something had bit his shoulder, had ripped his arm away from the rest of the body without breaking skin. She said he wasn’t in pain yet because it had destroyed the nerve endings. But his body was filling up with blood, and she said that if we didn’t put him down, he would be in agony for a few days before… he died. I just couldn’t…I couldn’t stand to see him like that…” her words trailed off into tears and Elliot took a deep breath. He helped his mother stand up and hugged her.
“Where is he?” Elliot asked.
“He’s inside. I brought him home for you,” she said, and they walked inside.
One year earlier, Charlie had passed away. His organs had slowly been failing and finally his body was too weak to keep up the fight. Elliot’s mother and father had divorced a few years before that, and he heard the news from his father first. Charlie was his father’s younger brother.
Elliot had come back for Thanksgiving and gone to his father’s house. It was the day before the actual holiday, and Elliot sat on a wicker chair by his father’s pool, his father smoking a cigar and letting the large chunks of ash fall and tumble onto the concrete.
“Do you know exactly what happened to Charlie?” his father asked him.
“I mean, not exactly, but I have pretty good idea. He tried to kill himself, right?” Elliot said.
“Yeah. We should have told you, I should have told you. We just didn’t know how to explain it really. I mean, you were so young, and we didn’t really want to…accept it, I guess. I don’t know. It’s no excuse really,” his father said, then took a large drag on the cigar.
“It’s okay,” Elliot said, but his chest seemed to coil itself more. His family had always been less than healthy with communication. He couldn’t remember exactly when he had realized that it had been suicide, but he knew that it must have been an accident that he had discovered it. He wondered if it really would have made a difference if his parents had just been straightforward about it in the first place. He cleared his throat and looked at his father.
“How did he do it? Why?” Elliot asked. His father didn’t make eye contact, and stared off past the iron gate that encircled the pool. Elliot followed his father’s gaze to the vegetation that clung desperately to the thin black rods. He looked back at his father, and noticed that his eyes seemed to be unsure of whether to look at nothing or everything at once. His father seemed like he wasn’t going to answer the question, but after a few moments, he took a drag of the cigar, exhaled, and cleared his throat.
“He ate a whole bottle of Tylenol,” he said. “Charlie was, ah shit, Charlie was always a wild one. Me and him fought a lot when we were kids. He was my little brother, so your grandma always expected me to keep him in line, which was next to impossible. He always had that fire in his ass, like he knew he could get away with anything. Your grandma would tell him not to do something, and even if he had no desire to do it before, he would get it in his head that it was his mission to do that thing.”
Elliot laughed and saw a small smile work it’s way into the corner of his father’s normally stoic face.
“There was a sadness in him though,” his father continued, “I could see it, but I never knew what to say or do about it. I guess he didn’t either.”
Elliot felt like his father’s words had draped him in an inescapable coldness. He had a longing to know Charlie the way his father knew him, and he felt that it was a part of his genetic fate to follow in his footsteps. His family members had always made remarks about the similarities between himself and Charlie. Charlie had been creative, had been outgoing, and had been stubborn. Elliot was just like him. It was like having a dead family member that the rest of the family said he reminded them of, except that he wasn’t quite dead yet.
Elliot had left his fathers at the end of the week and gone to meet Mary. He and Ian had only met Mary a few weeks before. Elliot was drawn to her. His parents had preached the dangers of drug abuse to him his whole life, telling him constantly that he was genetically screwed. Look at your uncle, they would say while lecturing him. You never know what’s going to happen to you. There was a side of him that knew they were right, but an even bigger side of him that said they were wrong, that he could do anything he wanted. He could push the envelope as far as he wanted, and that wouldn’t happen to him. So the first time he had met Mary, with her compact mirror and razor blades and her seemingly unending supply of cocaine, he had felt a spark inside of him, almost a challenge from his mind. How far can you go? How far can you stretch the limits of your life?
Elliot was kneeled beside the large black bag on the dining room floor. He pulled back the top edges and saw Rocky’s head. His eyes were closed, and his gray fur seemed darker than usual. Elliot stroked the cold fur of his head, then collected the bag up and held it in his arms. He could tell that the bag was lumpy and misshapen, larger than Rocky should have been, and he didn’t want to see it.
“He was a little daredevil. He just pushed it too far, poor baby,” his mother said behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder. Elliot felt his stomach turn at her words.
He stood up without speaking and walked towards the door. His mother followed him outside. The sun had just begun to set, and the sky was a mixture of purples and reds, as if it had been beaten and bruised by the wind. To the right side of the house was about an acre of forest. There was one trail behind the garage that led into the heart of it. Elliot walked into the garage and gently placed Rocky’s body in the wheelbarrow. He grabbed a shovel and pushed the wheelbarrow back outside. His mother stood with her arms holding her sides, her face puffy and contorted into a frown.
“Do you want me to go with you?” she asked. Elliot shook his head and pushed the wheelbarrow down the path. He felt a venomous anger at himself. He wondered if he had taken the time to find him and feed him this morning, instead of being dead set on getting high as soon as possible, then maybe Rocky would still be alive. Maybe if he had stopped for a moment and considered something other than his own desires, then none of this would have happened. Of course, it was too late for that now.
It took him about fifteen minutes of navigating through fallen limbs and thickets of vine to get to the spot. It was a large circular clearing in the middle of the trail. A huge pine tree had fallen years ago, and on his breaks from school, when he would come back home, he would always walk out here to think and smoke and be by himself. Rocky would always tag along, chasing bugs and eating grass while Elliot sat on the fallen tree.
He took Rocky out of the wheelbarrow and laid him on the fallen pine tree. He began to dig a hole in front of the tree, right beside where he would usually sit. As he dug, his motions became more emphasized, more violent. He slammed the shovel into the ground repeatedly, flinging piles of dirt into the wheelbarrow, the majority of the dirt piling up around it. His hands began to bleed, his grip on the splintered wooden shovel handle too tight. His thoughts wandered on their own -Rocky chasing birds in the woods, Mary smiling and handing him a tiny white rock, Charlie smiling with Rocky in his lap. The skeptic from the History Channel show popped into his head. I mean, how far are you going to push it?
How far was he going to push it?
He stopped and realized that he had dug a hole big enough to fit three cats. He dropped to his knees and leaned against the pine tree. He lifted the bag up and cradled it in his arms. Pulling the top back, he exposed Rocky’s head and kissed it. He stroked the head behind the ear, and his bloodied fingers tinted a patch of the fur red. He began whispering ‘I love you’ to Rocky, and he felt his chest suddenly release the tension he had been holding for so long. Tears began to slide down his face, and he screamed as loud as he could. He hadn’t cried after he found out Charlie was dead. He had simply held it inside of him, like a parasite that wrapped around the ventricles of his heart and slowly constricted.
Now, cradling his cat, his own scream still echoing in his ears, Elliot let go. He let it all slide out of him, like a knife being freed from the wound. He cried for what felt like hours, until the night sky around him turned black, and the forest began to awaken with life. He placed Rocky in the grave and began piling dirt on top of him. His mind had relinquished the notions of time and place, and his thoughts were scarcely more than a drone, a buzz. As he finished, his phone began to ring. He stopped and looked at it. Mary.
I mean, how far are you going to push it?
Without answering or hitting ignore, he took a step back and threw the phone as hard as he could into the darkness of the forest. The trill vibrating of the device blended in with the cicadas and crickets, and he shoveled the last bit of dirt on top of the grave. He put the shovel in the wheelbarrow then dropped to his knees and patted the dirt even with his hands.
He stood up and looked into the dark abyss above him, painted only with the bright specks of the celestial bodies. “I love you, Charlie,” he said, and he began pushing the wheelbarrow back home.