The man pulls in front of the house. His hands are steady. A revolver is fastened at his waist. It has a pearl trim on the handle and the rest is silver. It belonged to his father who was the sheriff before him, he hardly ever used it. The man is old. He has seen a lot. He has seen his town change. He has seen people he loves die and move away and new people replace them in houses he used to visit. He has seen the miles of farm land stripped of its utility. He remembers when he looked up at the sky watching the sun set behind the hills and the bird fly free. Now he looks up and sees smog rising to shade out the sun from the factory at the edge of town.
The town is different from when he was a young boy. Out-of-towners move in to work in the factory, hunters drive in on weekend trips and leave their trash around the campsites, and families visit to buy fresh corn and tomatoes from the few farmers that are still in business and take selfies outside of the town’s ‘Welcome’ sign, they mock the dwindling population line. The stores he grew up visiting have shuttered and the bar he frequents is slowly losing business to the chain down the street. This town is the only place he has ever called home. He had many chances to leave when he was a young man, but he refused to leave the only land and people he loves. Today he is an old man with many stories to tell but no one to tell them to.
He frequently drives past the fields he used to play in with the other kids. He remembers looking up at the night sky and his father pointing out the constellations - one by one he memorized them. He can still smell the cobbler his mother used to bake on Sunday mornings and the card games he played with his cousins. He remembers the stories his mother told him before going to bed. Once upon a time the land used to be full and grown and the town was bustling. Now the land no longer provides, the town is no longer growing… and the man is no longer a boy.
He parks his truck and gets out. A small boy on a tricycle rolls through the empty street toward him. The man looks at him “Boy, go home to your mother. We got a crazy one here.” The boy smiles, just happy to be acknowledged and turns around towards his home. The neighborhood is quiet. Most of the houses are rentals and there are more vacant lots than houses. The playground down the street is unused, except on summer nights when children play and their parents socialize and grill hot dogs.
The old man hovers his hand around his gun. His badge is clipped on to the left side of his shirt. The right side holds his walkie-talkie. The criminal he is about to arrest was easy to find, maybe the easiest one he has ever had to find. The criminal is an alcoholic in his late 20s or early 30s. He is approximately 6’3’’ and 230 pounds. His dark hair hangs to his chin haphazardly. He has a tendency to mouth off to locals and get into bar fights and vandalize stores. Every witness has commented on the wildness in his eyes. He is foreign to this land and has no respect for the local way of life. This puts a smile on the old man’s face as he slowly walks toward the house.
The old man sneaks his way on the side of the house. There is overgrown shrubbery around the house. Most of the windows do not have a clear view in to the yard. The man circles around back and sees the criminal’s station wagon on the other side of the house. He is positive the criminal is inside. He starts to walk over to the car to check it out. The front of the car is heavily damaged with streaks of blood running from the bumper up to the windshield. Suddenly he hears a clamor and a muffled shriek from inside the house. The old man sprints to the door. He pulls out his revolver and knocks - “Sheriff’s office! Come out with your hands up!” He hears the criminal inside, clunk, clunk, clunk, the stomping of his boots on his way to the door. Silence. The door opens and the criminal sticks his head out calmly. “Step out, son. Put your hands up and step out. It’s over, you’re coming with me.” The old man sees the wildness in his eyes. The criminal has a slight grin and calm stare. He fires a kettle of boiling water at the old man - swinging the door open and sprinting off. The kettle nearly misses the old man, water drips on to his chest and burns him. Just a little bit - just enough to hurt. The criminal sprints off towards the back of the neighborhood, past the fields and into the woods. The old man grimaces and radios his deputy to intercept the criminal on the highway that splits the woods in half. The sheriff examines his wounds for a second. He has burns on his chest. He takes a deep breath and takes off.
The old man sprints after the criminal to make sure he heads to the highway. He runs and runs. He is in pain, his chest throbs with every step. He follows the muddy boot tracks through the woods. The criminal is heading towards the highway. The man is satisfied, his plan is going as intended. He has groomed his deputy for a time like this. He runs some more until he can run no more. His chest is in pain. He breathes wildly. His legs are sore. He stops to catch his breath. Pop. Pop. A gun goes off in the distance. The man is satisfied that the criminal has been caught, but he is saddened that it happened so violently. Screech. A cars swerves off. The man is confused, Why would his deputy drive off? The man radios the deputy. No response.
The criminal’s house smells of death. The bathroom is covered in blood. A deer is dying in the bath tub. Its neck is broken. A large knife sticks out of its belly. Its guts are spilling out. The criminal is far more deranged than than old man has seen in his town.
Seven years have passed. The man is in his car driving down a narrow road. The door to his house is locked. The gate to his property is chained. He has one bag in the bed of his truck, filled with everything he will ever need. Smoke is still disseminating from the fire place. Above the fireplace sits two urns. His body is imprinted on an armchair facing the back window. A coffee ring is stained into the worn wooden side table. His revolver sits there, loaded, one bullet in the chamber.
He has spent the last seven years brooding, asking God for a sign. God never replied. Now he is leaving his life behind in search of something new - still missing everything familiar.
He has heard stories of the criminal in the no too distant city. His eyes have a faraway look, a quiet grin and a big frame, and tattered clothes. Two visitors had spoke of him at the bar.
He continues down the road. Stopping only to fill up his truck. His truck was old and worn, yet reliable. The road is straight with brush on either side, followed by miles of farmland, and then more brush. The sun beats down and occasionally it rains. Lightning and thunder fill the sky and the wind picks up. The clouds are forming into a cyclone beyond the brush.
He drives on. A car speeds behind him. Their brights are on. The man can’t see. He slows down and lets them pass. They speed far ahead of him. He continues on, unbothered, just content with the moment he is in.
The road elevates over the brush. The weather has cleared. The sun is bright. He is optimistic about his journey. He drives on and sees the road splitting in two in the distance. He looks one way and sees hills rolling and more farm land. The other way is flat. He has several miles before he has to decide. The road is empty except for him and his worn-out truck. He is drawn to the hills. They look beautiful and spacious with a full view of the sky. He looks once more at the flat land on the other side. He now notices tall buildings in the distance. It is the city the criminal was last spotted. He thinks to himself - “Is this the sign from God I have been asking for?” He has fought the urge to seek revenge - but something is pulling at him.
He is uncertain of what part of him he should listen to. The sign reads .5 miles, drives in the right lane towards the city. The barricade is approaching. He is conflicted. His knuckles wrap around the steering wheel, bulging out his as his nails dig into his palms. 500 feet. The man swerves at the last second hyperventilating, ashamed of the anger that consumed him. He swerves to all the way to the right. His tires screech and slide across uncontrollably. He slams through the barricade and in to the brush.
The light of dawn awakens him. It is not dark anymore but the brush is heavy and he still does not know where he is or where too find the familiar. He has a few bruises and cuts. He gets up to find he has a slight limp. He walks on in to a random direction, the brush is too thick to know where it leads. The sun begins to set and a cold front begins to move in. His clothes are tattered. He looks for a small clearing in the brush to lay his head or perhaps a branch sturdy enough to sleep on. He walks a little more not finding what he is looking for. He then notices a light in the distance. He walks toward it.
The small light is the lobby of an abandoned hotel. The hotel has one single floor that stretches in both directions. It is made of wood and stone. Its entrance has a pointed roof. Its parking lot is empty. The walls are covered with heads of animals and nothing else. It has been abandoned for some time. Papers are thrown about covering the floor. The roof is leaking and a shattered chandelier lays in the middle of the lobby. Two pillars greet the man as he enters. In the center is a dusty statue of a man with serpent body. The face has decayed except for a cracked smile.
He checks the shelf behind the receptionist desk for keys to a room to stay in. He hopes to find a room that is furnished, if not he will clear the debris off of the couch in the lobby. The shelf is bare. He checks the drawers and cabinets. The keys are nowhere to be found.
He walks down one hallway of rooms and hopes for the best. The lightbulbs are mostly shattered with just a few still flickering. He walks down and absorbs the consequences of antiquity and decay. It smells foul. The doors are all locked. He tries every one of them. Unexpectedly he notices a door slightly cracked. There is a mattress with no sheets and a broken mirror in the bathroom.
The room is falling apart but the man will make it work. The mattress is stained but leveled and the mirror is broken and dusty yet clean enough to see his reflection. His hair is ragged and his beard is growing out. His shirt is wrinkled and torn. His eyes are bloodshot and his lips are cracked with a bit of blood drying in the center.
He takes off his shirt and then his pants. He grimaces as he undresses. He is in pain from the journey he has embarked on, plus the grief and stress that have built up in him. His stomach has burn marks across his abdomen. His eyes are dead and his wrinkles are deep.
He is naked. He lays on the bed staring at the ceiling. The lights are off. He reaches down to his stomach and caresses himself. He gently runs his fingers across it. Then he speeds up. He begins to weep uncontrollably. He has not done so for longer than he can remember. He sobs and dry heaves as loud as he can. There is no one that could possibly hear him. He is alone.
The sun light shines through the cracks in the curtain on the man’s face. He groans awake. He feels refreshed but annoyed he couldn’t finish his dream. There is light coming from underneath the door. He notices two thin and narrow shadows protruding through the light. He opens the door in curiosity. There is a server’s cart just outside the door. A tray covered with a silver domed lid sits to one side. The other side is a pair of clothes folded on to a bathrobe. In the middle is a bar of soap and just behind it is a key. The key is silver in color and have a laminated yellowed paper tag attached. The tag has the number “32” scribbled on it. The tag is wrinkled and connected by white string to the key.
He rolls the tray in to the room and removes the domed lid. Two scrambled eggs, two strips of bacon, shredded hash browns, and bowl of sliced strawberries and cantaloupe. The man devours all of it, too hungry to think about how odd the situation is. He takes a shower and puts on the fresh set of clothes, a pair of blue denim jeans, and dull yellow short sleeve button up. He wears his own leather belt and boots. He rolls the tray out of his room to where it stood just an hour before. He then picks up the keys in search of the room. It is not far from the room he slept in, just down the hall to the left.
The key fits and he turns the knob. In the room is a bedside table with drawers sitting on top of it. At its base is a red metal toolbox and a set of power tools. The curtains are drawn and the sun shines through. He sits on an old dusty carpet and gets to work. He fixes the drawer and cleans and levels the table. He polishes and sands the wood. He enjoys working with his hands - it gives him purpose, and so he goes above and beyond. The bedside table looks brand new. He gets so caught up in the job that he loses track of time. There are no clocks in the building. He only notices that the day has passed because it becomes too dark for him to see. He is pleased with his work. He smiles a little bit and the muscles around his eyes are a little looser.
He returns to his room to see a new cart outside of his door. He rolls it into his room. There is another covered tray of food with a pair of sheets next to it. The sheets are clean and soft and beige in color. The bottom rack has a pillow sitting on it. The pillow is fluffy but firm. The man is excited. He throws the sheets and pillow on to his bed. He then removes the lid. A plate of fried pork chops, roast potatoes, and a side of green beans. He washes it all down with a glass of water. He is pleased. He sets the key to room 32 on the tray and rolls it outside his door. He falls asleep and he sleeps well for the first time in years.
He wakes up by sunlight once again and once again there is cart of food and clean clothes with a key sitting at the foot of his door. The key is to room 76. This time there is a bed that needs fixing. He gets lost in the assignment. The next day there are sink pipes that need to be fixed in room 23. The day after there are major stains and debris that need to cleaned in room 44. Each night he comes home to a fresh made meal and each morning he wakes up to a hot breakfast and a cup of coffee. He fixes up the lobby in his spare time. It takes a while but starts with simply cleaning up the debris and then fixing the desks and tables and then the chairs. He later moves on to the couches. The hotel is almost finished. There are days he has to fix the wiring of certain rooms. Sometimes he is left with manuals, other times he is left to trial and error to get each part of the hotel up and running. He saves the manuals and reads them over and over again before he goes to bed. The man enjoys working with his hands and the freedom to experiment and he is satisfied with seeing and living in his work. It has become a living breathing project for him. The debris from the chandelier has been cleaned up and the statue of the serpent still stand ominously with on its shattered visage not glistening. Almost every room is sparkling clean. Still he has yet to find out who has been feeding and clothing him, who it is that leaves the keys to his daily assignment, who makes sure he has clean sheets and bathrobe, who it is that takes care of him. This has entered his mind a few time, but he is satisfied with receiving and not knowing. He is content with his daily life. He feels at peace with himself - the first time in longer than he can remember.
The man wakes up and eats his breakfast, gets dressed, and picks up his key. He enters his assigned room. He has already set up the bed frame and mattress, the lamps sit on bed stands that he repaired. The room looks welcoming. The wardrobe is the only thing that needs to be fixed. It has a broken shelf and is tilted to one side, it is marked up all over and needs to be sanded and glossed. It is quite an undertaking. It exhausts him. He fixes the broken shelf and rebalances the piece. He sands it down and vacuums the shavings off of the hard wood floors. He glosses the wardrobe starting from the left side and then the right and finally the front. He starts at the top and works his way down. He gets down to the bottom half of his section and notices the sun has set and it is well into the night time. He notices how weak and hungry he is. His hands tremble and limp around. His eyes hurt from being concentrated for so long. His wrinkles are deep and his body feels frail from the full day of hard work. He finishes up the last sliver of wooden panel. He steps back to applaud his work. He is ready to eat and sleep to rest his body. He steps back and his heel knocks over the can of gloss. The gloss spills on the floor. It is everywhere. The man is tired and groans in disappointment. He was so close to resting but now has created more work for himself.
He lifts the empty can up. He picks up rag from the bed to clean up the gloss only notice much of the gloss has seeped through the floor boards. There are no screws in the wooden planks. The floor is hollow. There is something below.
The man cautiously removes each plank. He can see nothing, it is pitch black. He hears high-pitched cries for help and the sound of chains rattling against the concrete. Sweat rolls down his back. Suddenly, everything is black, the darkness becomes darker.
The man regains consciousness but he still can not see. There is a black bag over his face. Light shines through one small hole the size of pin prick. His breaths are weak, he feels like his is suffocating. His shirt is soaked with sweat. He is sitting in sand, but he does not know where. He is on his knees. There is loud rabid bark behind him. Between the barks he hears waves crashing in the distance. He is unsure where he is. He has never seen the ocean. His hands are tied behind his back. The rope scratches into his wrists. He is unsure what is sweat and what is blood. Sand gets in to his wounds. He is unsure where the wounds came from. He does not remember how he got to where he is now.
He hears footsteps walking towards him. The sand stings his wounds. He hears a deep chuckle. The laugh gets louder and then the footsteps stop next to him. Sand is kicked on to his left side. He can hear a woman whimpering next him. She is crying and yelling for help in a language he has never heard.
To the left he hears the sound of a revolver being loaded. The barrel does not sound full. He hears more laughing. Bang. The woman falls to the ground. He can feel her blood ooze on to his legs. The footsteps slowly make their way to him. The bag gets yanked off of him. Sun light blinds him. He blinks to regain his vision. He hears more laughter, this time louder and more sadistic. The sun shines behind the figure and he can hardly see his face. It slowly becomes more visible. The figure is tall, athletic, standing upright. The man looks into its eyes and immediately recognizes the wildness. The criminal laughs harder and harder and harder. He can not stop. The dog barks louder and louder. The waves keep crashing rhythmically. The man sits on his knees, realizing his fate has been sealed for longer than he can comprehend.
The criminal points the gun at the man. Click. The criminal laughs harder and harder, the dog louder and louder, the man feel liquid dripping down his thighs, the waves keep crashing. The criminal struts around the man, screaming obscenities in a language the man does not understand. He presses the gun to the side of the man’s face burning his cheek. Click. The noises build once more. The criminal’s revolver is loaded with only a few bullets. Its all a game to him.
The criminal slashes the rope. “Run!” The man gets up and sprints as blood drips from his newly freed hands. He does not recognize the clothes he is wearing, nor does he recognize the place he is in. He is surrounded by dunes. His head hurts and his heart is racing. He is weak. Click. He runs as fast he can up a dune. He hears the laughter and barking behind him. He knows a revolver holds six bullets and four shots have been fired. He keeps sprinting. The waves get louder. The barking gets louder and louder. He feels teeth sink into his ankles. He kicks the dog off of him, the dog immediately pounces back on him. It nuzzles its way past his arms trying to bite the man’s throat. The man punches the dog in the eye until it whimpers off of him. He kicks the dog off and runs. Flesh falls off of his hands. The dog pounces on his back. The man grabs it by its neck and squeezes. The dogs snaps its jaw mindlessly. The man squeezes until the dog lays still.
The man gets up once again and sprints. The laughter and waves continue. His clothes are tattered and falling off of him. He can see the top of the dune. He sprints as fast as he can. He makes a leap to get over the edge, to get out of view of the criminal. Bang. The man yells out in pain. He rolls down the other side of the hill. The sand seeps into his wounds. He rolls uncontrollably. He hits into a rock, jerking him to a stop. Waves crash back and forth. He feels the cool mist on his skin. It is comforting. The ground becomes more and more wet. It soaks him. The blood washes off of him. He lets the water take him away. He arches his back and looks up at the painted the sky and the bright sun shining down on him. He sighs and a cracked smiles appears on his face as he takes one last breath.