by ZACH ERITZ
he flames began to settle into a soft golden flicker as the cowboy moseyed on with another one of his predictable yarns. Mya had inched her body toward mine and was leaning up against my shoulder. I didn’t dare move, even an inch, in fear that she would readjust herself. I was pretty sure I’d lost all circulation to my butt since I no longer felt the rock I had foolishly chosen to sit on. She nestled her head into my arm and all I could seem to do was bite my lower lip to keep from grinning like an idiot.
“That night was much like this one. The stars just as faded and the moon close enough to count its craters—maybe a little closer now that I think of it.” The cowboy rambled as he judged his claim by eyeing up the moon. A tightly rolled cigarette hung from his perched lips and his ten gallon hat fell down past his eyebrows. “It was just me, the cattle, and my Winchester. Normally I wouldn’t be moving so many cattle by myself, but ol’ Bucky came down with a fever and passed a week earlier—and there was a deadline to be had. Turned out I was the only protection between those cattle and the Rancho de Barrillo. I couldn’t ‘ford to lose even one of them or it’d be my head.”
His name was Xiang Li, but he simply went by the cowboy. His ancestors helped build the Union Pacific Railroad but eventually herding became the family trade. He said he’d been herding cattle since he was a kid out in Omaha. It was all he knew. The cowboy took a lengthy drag from his cigarette, but then remained silent. It was obvious he was waiting for one of us to take more of an interest in his story. Mya rolled her eyes and redirected her attention towards me. She lolled her head closer to my chest. “So how many days you think we are from Cassadaga?”
The flames burst back to life as the cowboy kicked the remaining branches into the pit. He said nothing, and flicked the butt of his cigarette into its quivering tongues, which lapped it up with a lewd ferocity. With the hard light flaring against his misshapen face he resembled something pale and extraterrestrial.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Mya spouted as she jolted up from my side. I quickly took advantage of the moment to shake out my legs. “So you’re all pissed off because I didn’t let you finish your stupid story? Let me take a wild guess—you still have your head, so you got all the stupid cows where they needed to go, right? Wow, what a great fucking story.”
Putting all of his focus into rolling another cigarette, the cowboy avoided Mya’s glare. “You best watch that mouth of yours, little lady.”
Mya laughed tenaciously as she threw both her hands on her hips and leaned forward as if her cleavage was weighing her down. “Little lady, huh? The way you’ve been staring at me, I’d say little ladies like me get you all hot and wild. Tell me, does it frustrate you? So close to touch—no more than an arm’s length—to have all this to yourself.” She grinned, “And yet you might as well be a million light-years away.”
“I’m warning you, darlin’.”
You couldn’t cut the tension between the two of them with a well-manned chainsaw. And in my experience there’s one of two things that could happen with tension between opposite genders, and neither of those things were good for me. So, as the mediator, I tried to make things right. It had been my tacit role since we’d started out on our journey almost six days before.
“Go on, Mister,” I heard myself say, “Tell the rest of your story. What happened next?”
Wide-eyed, Mya glanced back at me. She opened her mouth to say something, but instead found a place in the shadows and sat down. I immediately regretted siding with the cowboy, and I could only imagine what Mya figured me for. She pulled out her old battery powered walkman and snuggled between a pair of crusty roots which protruded from the earth like scabs.
“Girls,” the cowboy sneered. “There’s just no reasonin’ with ‘em. One second they’re playful as a kitten, and the next they’re looking to tear out your neck like a bobcat. You never know when they’re time's a-comin’.”
I forced a snigger. There wasn’t much else I knew to do in an uncomfortable situation. I wasn’t particularly one to feel at ease around people, even if there were just two of them. But we were all loners in our own rite. The cowboy had spent many nights alone under the stars, left to his own wonderings. Without much company, he had come to develop a habit of excessive talking. He constantly muttered along to himself, and he didn’t seem to care who around heard him. Even in his sleep he talked, always keeping himself company. Mya, on the other hand, was extremely sensitive. But not overly sensitive in that Orson Welles-way. She didn’t take offense to bad jokes or blind ignorance. She was just someone who would over think what everyone said, did, and implied. And then there was me. Louie Holloway. Feeble brother to Lawrence Holloway. During the past year I’d been a shut-in—a professional TV watcher. No kidding… I can shoot the shit until the wee hours of the night, the point where the night sky fades but the sun has not yet broke into view, and talk nearly every show within the past forty years. I’ve seen episodes of virtually everything out there, and more often than not, I would find myself re-watching shows out of sheer boredom. The day came when my father had enough and booted me out of the house, so I found a pack of squatters and continued my habit with a small black and white, which could barely focus with its warped bunny ears.
A quick harmony pattered from Mya’s headphones, which reminded me of theme music. The cowboy’s story made me think of one of those old westerns I used to watch. A snippet of the main character going through some minor ordeal to show off his tenacity before the bad guys would ride into town and shoot the sheriff or kidnap the damsel.
Later that night, fruitless under the stars, I sprawled out on a soft patch of earth. As I gazed upwards into space, I tried to lose all sense of what I already knew about the world. Instead I imagined myself as something wild and lost. The stars, no longer gigantic balls of fire and gases—or whatever the hell science deems a star—distorted the sky into appearing as a moth-eaten veil of endless black silk. Infinite bright speckles, scattered in no particular fashion, befalling the day and ceaselessly attempting to force themselves back through those infinite holes, proved as nothing more than the majesty of clockwork.
My mind had been muddled from constant insomnia and caffeine tablets. I hadn’t slept through an entire night in almost a year. The only sleep I could seem to manage were in two hour increments, where it would feel like I did nothing more than blink for an extended period of time. There was no brain function, no memory, no nothing during these periods. Gazing up at the stars through burning saggy eyes, I felt a deep longing for closing them and perhaps never waking up. Sleep was nothing more than a burning ache I could feel deep in the pit of my gut.
Mya and I hoped by traveling down to Cassadaga that we could cure our night terrors. You see, we were both haunted by the same reoccurring dream, and Cassadaga was our only chance at ever experiencing a peaceful night’s sleep again. Mya was told by her parents that having night terrors absolved in Cassadaga was the equivalent to coming across the Fountain of Youth or El Dorado. She was told to stay in therapy to find what inside her aroused the recurring nightmare. They said the dead were dead and could not possibly communicate with you through your dreams. That’s what the prescription meds are for.
It was extraordinary that two people, who never shared more than a few words in the past, were able to posit the same nightly visual deceptions of guile and perversion. Mind you, these images are considered night terrors—according to professionals. Night terrors, nightmares, bad dreams. Many people, (especially in the past few years), had begun to experience the mental anguish of fear and some form of a phobia, but it’s not often people share the same dream down to the finest of details. I first found this out after my late brother’s funeral. Nearly a year from his death, every time I fell asleep I had the same recurring dream. It was at that time I heard, word of mouth and all, that Mya had been committed. At first I figured it for depression, as she never was the most buoyant, but then I later found it was from the effects of a disturbing dream she had been having since the night Lawrence died.
Soon after, I visited the hospital one afternoon and poured my heart out to her—spilling every last detail of my vision of the underworld. It was an unbearably normal day, the sun hung high above us, not enough to warm the chill in the air. The golden rays cascaded over Mya’s white blouse, reflecting over her unusually pale complexion. She was doped up on anti-depressants. I asked her if she would like some of my caffeine tablets, and she ended up helping herself to the rest of them. She told me of Cassadaga—she had just read about it in one of the magazines in the hospital library—she said it was our only chance to find peace. A week later I returned to that same spot in the hospital lawn, it was after midnight, and it was that fateful night we began our journey to Cassadaga.
“Ayahh! No! Please, no!”
Before looking back at Mya, I already knew she had fallen asleep. She sat straight up, eyes wide open, like she was under a ghostly possession, trying to catch her breath as her chest blew in and out in rapid succession.
“Are you okay?” I hollered back to her.
She didn’t answer. The lack of sleep was hardest on her. I was a seasoned insomniac; during those long empty nights of staring into television screens, I was able to trigger myself to stay awake for the most part. And even in my sleep I have learned to shut off all activity in my mind and sleep as ceaseless as a vegetable (only for short periods of time, of course). Mya on the other hand was deeply affected from her loss of REM sleep. Limited functionality and depression reduced her by the day.
I threw myself down beside her. She had the shakes so I carefully placed my arm around her. Luckily the cowboy was passed out drunk, cooped up in the sidecar of his motorbike. I looked down at Mya and she looked back at me, and for a moment I thought we were going to kiss. Then, she said, “I can’t take it any longer, Louie. We have to get there quicker. If we don’t, I… I don’t think I’ll make it.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I didn’t like the way she sounded. Her voice, it seemed disconnected.
“No more stops,” she said. “We leave now and we just keep on moving ‘til we get to Cassadaga.”
I looked back at the cowboy, and couldn’t help but wince. I knew he wouldn’t go for it, he never did understand our problem. Since he was in search of work, he stopped at every ranch along the way. But he had been gracious enough to pick us up back north on Highway 99 and to offer to ride us as far south as his journey took him. To leave him without an explanation just seemed ungrateful, but I knew Mya didn’t care. If she could she would steal the bike right out from under him.
“I know what you’re thinking, Louie, but we have to. He’ll hold us back. We just need to start walking. There’ll be someone else that can let us hitch a ride.” Mya gently placed her hand over mine and looked up at me with glossy eyes. The discolored rings around them were more than an indication of her suffering.
I picked up a stick and began writing in the loose dirt…
The stars had long since faded into daybreak and the sky was settling into a pale blue. Mya dug her feet into the gravel with each step as if she were climbing a mountain. Her pace was slow but unwavering. My head felt compressed and depleted from the constant walking. My muscles weren’t used to being strained for long periods of time, and all the oxygen in my body was draining into my calves. I began to count steps but precipitously lost focus. The furthest I ever got was fifty. At that point, my skull tightened from my insomnia and it felt as if I was being held up by invisible wires. A recurring chiming reverberated through the walls of my head, knocking my concentration out of whack.
“You wish we would’ve stayed, don’t you?” Mya exhaled half under her breath. “But trust me; at the rate we were going we would never make it. We had to leave him.”
Normally I would give in to her and nod that she had been right. But I was just waiting for the cowboy to pass us on his motorbike. I was already sure that Mya’s decision was a bit hasty—to put it mildly. In the past week we’d only seen a handful of vehicles, most of them freight trucks, but they wouldn’t pick up hitchers anymore.
“I got it,” she slurred. The rings under her eyes were almost black and her eyes themselves were sunken like a cadaver’s. “Next town we come by… we’ll just steal a car. I mean how hard can it be?”
I just nodded. Who was I to question her? I was pretty sure a town was the last thing we were going to come by. It came down to the point where we were going to either stop and sleep or we were going to die from exhaustion. We both knew it. Mya couldn’t help but keep pushing her luck step by step; cozying up next to death had become worthwhile to her—it was the lesser of two evils.
The beaten road flaked here and there in no particular fashion, like craters in the moon. In some cases you could see long rivets where large chunks of asphalt had been ripped away by rubber and weather. As we continued down the stretch of chipped highway, Mya began to force herself out in front of me. She was really pushing herself, I could see her knees wobbling under her, but she pressed on. She reminded me of a baby giraffe I had seen on the Discovery Channel. She awkwardly sprawled her legs out in front of her, not quite strong enough to carry herself for more than a few more meters, before she finally caved.
When I made my way up to her, she was just staring off in the distance. She was not upset that her knees were bleeding or her ankle may have been twisted. She was just fixated on the road ahead.
“We need to stop and rest.”
“I know,” she said without looking back at me.
“We just need to embrace him when we see him this time. No more fear. He’s my brother for crissakes. There’s nothing to fear of the dead. He’s nothing but spirit,” I said.
“Eh! Heh! Huh!” Mya pouted tiredly. She hunched over herself, with her head wedged into her knees. I patted her on the back.
“We just need to be brave.”
“It’s not that it’s him that scares me. He scared me enough when he was alive. It’s the constant picking that I can’t take. He just picks and picks and picks, until there’s nothing but bone left.”
I couldn’t help but chew at the crusted skin that glazed over my lips. That’s all Lawrence would do in the dream. He sat against his headstone in the underworld, and he would just pick away at the loose flesh of his body. He was unaware that we were watching no matter how loud we screamed for him. His eyes were hollowed out and he would just stare into the distance through those dark craters.
Lawrence was my twin brother—and a son of a bitch. When he was alive there was no one meaner nor with crueler intentions than Lawrence. I tried not to remember all the times he became livid and chased after me with a steak knife or when he’d soap up my contacts at night. Lawrence and Mya used to be an item. They dated for some time, but Lawrence had a tendency of being jealous from what I’ve heard. The relationship was something physical, that is, mostly sexual experimentation. Mya would never go into too much detail, but apparently it wasn’t all fun and games; he would also bounce her around. But I don’t think she was a victim either. Word on the street was Mya liked to stir the pot. By word on the street, I mean by certain implications. And by certain implications, I mean what I’ve gathered from being around her as long as I have. She would do things on purpose to get a rise out of people and she was always one to gripe for attention. A combination of that and Lawrence’s primal rage is what ended up being his downfall.
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“You mean Cassadaga?” Mya looked up at me searchingly.
I brushed aside some gravel beside me and sat down. “Er—yeah. I’ve just been thinking, and what if we won’t be able to communicate with him? Then what?”
I could see it in her eyes that not communicating with Lawrence was never an option. She needed Lawrence to leave her alone and give her some peace, or she would do herself in just to erase the image of him. All Mya could muster was a shrug and a weak smile. We both knew what would happen then. I leaned back with the gravel digging into my palms, feeling like an idiot for bringing it up.
I set my pack down and sprawled out beside her. Mya’s eyes were already shut, too heavy with sleep. My body was subsequently exhausted where I didn’t even mind the stones under my back.
“Let’s do this together.” She took my hand and loosely stuck her fingers between mine.
The sun bathed us with its warm rays as we settled into our dark slumber. The mating calls of birds played aptly like a lullaby. I began to drift away from the world and into the first levels of sleep, and just as I was about to become completely submerged into the vast depths of human thought, the roar of an engine blasted in the distance. At first I couldn’t tell what world it came from, but I found myself awakened in the same patch of earth adjacent to the highway.
There was a trail of dust in the distance heading right for us. I quickly grabbed Mya and shook her awake. Her eyes shot open and they goggled up fish-eyed. I wasn’t sure if I woke her just in time or if I was too late.
“Mya, there’s a van coming.”
Before I could muster another word she was already in the middle of the road flailing her arms up and down. The van slowed down as it drifted closer to her, but she kept signaling. It stopped just feet away from her. The van was an old beater, sharing the color of white and rust. On its side it read: BRINKWOOD MEDICAL, INC. Mya leaned her body against the van and slowly pulled herself to the driver’s window.
I snatched up both our packs and hurried over. When I came into earshot of Mya and the driver, his raspy voice, trying hard to sound soothing, was saying, “Well a pretty girl shouldn’t be out on the highway with just her brother. It ain’t safe out here in these parts.”
Brother? I could hardly believe he just assumed that I was Mya’s brother. We looked nothing alike. She was fair and silky in all the right places and I was rough and hairy in all the wrong ones. In the least he should’ve assumed that she was my lover, though she was far more than out of my league.
“Me and my brother have been out here for days alone. I’d do just about anything if you’d give us a ride as far south as possible.” She bit her lip, giving him that cherry gaze as she looked up at him. I gripped the handles of the packs tighter.
“Him, too?” the driver asked nodding up in my direction.
“Well, yeah,” Mya giggled. “He is my brother for crying out loud. Can’t just be leaving family behind. What kind of girl would I be?”
“A typical one… okay, hop in the other side, the both of you.” While Mya rushed to the other side he pulled a flask out of his front pocket and took a long swig.
I trudged to the van and set the packs down. “You mind if I throw our packs in the back here?”
“Whoa!” The driver jumped out of the van and grabbed my hand, which was resting on the handle. “Listen, how ‘bout you go jump in the front with your sister. I’ll find a place for your packs. Got a problem with space and I need to arrange some things around.”
“Uh—sure,” was all I could manage to say. I jumped up in the passenger seat next to Mya.
“You got to sit in the middle, Louie.”
“What? Why do I have to?” Mya lowered her eyes at me, giving me a look like I was forgetting some obvious chivalric gesture. “You’re smaller. You should sit in the middle.”
“And have that man drool all over me the entire ride? I’m a girl—or did you forget that? You don’t have to worry about him groping you.”
At that point I was really wishing that we had stuck with the cowboy. He was familiar—no one we really had to worry about. I mean, he may have snuck peeks at Mya an awful lot, but he would never act on any of his impulses. Like he told us, he was used to being alone.
“What’s he doing back there?” Mya moaned.
I tried to ration up the seat space so I would give myself a nice bit of room from the driver. “Said he had to move some things around to make space for our packs.”
Mya pulled out her walkman and was about to put the headphones on. I quickly tore them out of her hands.
“What the hell, Louie!”
I shook my head, “I’m already sitting in the middle. You’re not going to leave me to talk with him the whole time, too.”
“Fine,” she pouted. She shifted her body towards the window.
Mya was one of those girls that looked even prettier when she was upset. I couldn’t help but watch her from the corner of my eye. She had bits of leaves and dirt mixed in her hair and dry blood caked around her nose. She’d been having nosebleeds the past few days.
“You didn’t tell him about Cassada—“
Before I could finish my thought the driver’s door creaked open, and the man pulled himself in. He eyed Mya and me down as he ignited the engine, and it was the first good look I got of him. He was hunched over himself and had an Igor-semblance, nothing short of a half dazed flicker in his eyes, most likely from the constant driving. Grey stubble patched over his face in different lengths and his eyebrows were growing into each other. But he donned a smile of relief, something of yearned companionship, content with another’s meager presence.
“Nice to meet you, Mister. I’m Louie.” I jabbed my hand towards him. His eyes seemed to scan over me where they found Mya, slowly dominating her frailty. He nodded in somber fascination. As we drifted down the road my eyes drifted to the rearview mirror in case the cowboy caught up to us.
The driver, awkward and shaky, broke the silence, “What was it you said your name was again?”
“Louie,” I said.
He squinted at me in hidden anguish, “It’s a pleasure.” He redirected his attention back to Mya. “And you, girl? You never told me your name.”
“A gentleman always introduces himself first.” Mya returned his gaze through cold eyes.
The driver was taken aback. He turned slightly and took a quick swig from his flask, then shakily sticking it back in his pocket, he said, “I s’pose you’re right. Just seem to lose myself after drivin’ for so long. The name’s Miller.”
“Henrietta,” Mya quickly replied. “It’s good to meet you.”
A soft smile glistened across Miller’s protruding jaw, and he gently nodded, more so a result of contemplation than that of acknowledgement. “Well, Henrietta, where might I ask you’re headin’ that you’d be just out here with your brother? You ain’t runaways?”
“You see, Mr. Miller, My—sister, Henrietta, and I suffer from night terrors, and we’re actually going to—Ow!” Mya sharply buried her elbow into my ribcage. I quickly shut my eyes to keep the tears in.
“…Our uncle’s to stay for awhile.” Mya quickly picked up where I left off, “He is expecting us any day now, and we need to get there lickety-split so he doesn’t get all worried and start looking for us.”
If Miller was suspicious of our demeanor he didn’t show it. He just repeatedly nodded to himself, quietly taking Mya in a sip at a time. He looked like he was lipping her fake name, Henrietta.
“Night terrors, eh?” Miller scratched at the fine hairs poking from his stubble. “Is that somethin’ like a nightmare?” Mya nodded. “Your uncle must be a God-fearing man if you think he’ll save you from a nightmare. They say if you can’t sleep sound at night, it’s the demons preying on the sin in you. Me, I don’t have a problem with sleep. I say my prayers, then I’m out like a log.”
Mya wasn’t even listening to Miller; devoid to her immediate surroundings, she stared through the window in a statue-still state. Her blurred reflection, though it was too soft to confirm her finer features, mirrored a rapid veering of her eye movement. She appeared to be in the middle of REM sleep with her eyelids hanging wide open. I nudged her but it wasn’t enough. I gently patted her on her lap, but still nothing. You could see the strain in her face, and I knew she was with Lawrence. It was too late to wake her. She was his for now.
“Now that I think about it, there was this fella who was possessed by a demon.” Miller went on. “I was just a boy at the time—ten or eleven—but this man wouldn’t sleep. He would just lay strapped to his bed screamin’ gibberish.”
“Maybe he was screaming because he was strapped to his bed.”
He glared at me, “You know nothin’ about the world, boy. You didn’t see him like I seen him. Nantucket’s old priest, Father Clemmons, even had to perform an exorcism and everythin’—just like in the movies.”
I wasn’t sure if Miller was trying to help our cause or if he was just hammering away at the only thing he knew about us. He just kept dribbling on about nightmares and demons and God and sin. I wanted to change the subject but the opportunity continued to fall out of reach. Every time I opened my mouth he babbled on with another thought. As we hit rivets in the road, I passive-aggressively bumped into Mya harder than I should have.
“You see, He will come again. He didn’t forget about the rest of us. The good Lord just knows some of us need more time in the oven than others.”
As Miller yammered on, I couldn’t help but notice an old black and white snapshot rattling against the windshield. It was propped up, snuggly kept in place by the dashboard and some old tape. The photograph framed around a girl no older than Mya—about fourteen or fifteen—she was swimming in a flower-spotted dress, something I could see a girl wearing to mass on a Sunday. Her white locks nearly grazed her shoulder blades as she dipped forward in a huddled pose for the camera. Her smile was radiant, all gums and teeth.
“Who’s that—your daughter?” I asked, trying to change the subject away from our aforementioned journey.
Miller wrinkled his nose searching for an answer, “She’s someone important to me.”
“She is,” he answered. “She was the closest thing I had to family on this God-forsaken-rock. She was taken from me some time ago, but you know how that goes.”
“What’s her name?”
“Holly. She was my Holly,” he said hoarsely. There was a pain in his voice and I looked away to give him a chance to wipe his eyes.
Miller yanked the flask out and flicked the lid open. He cocked his head back to take a swig like some sort of intoxicated flamingo, his adam's apple bulging from his neck. He shook it to make sure there wasn’t an extra sip hiding from him. He then hollered out at me, “Hey, boy!”
“Louie? Right…your name,” he promptly deduced. “Will ya grab me the bottle under your seat?”
I blindly stuck my hand into the cavernous space, my fingers just grazing the surfaces of multiple glass and plastic containers which hadn’t a drop left in them. Finally I found one clinging all the way in the back; it took my entire arm, but I pried it under to scrape the bottle out. It was clear and plastic with a brown puddle inside. The label was black and faded. “Whiskey.”
Miller held the flask out to me, “Would ya fill her up?”
I told him I might spill some on the seat since the potholes in the road seemed to be getting bigger the more south we traveled. He didn’t care so I poured what was left into the flask, and the remainder drenched my hand.
“Go on, take a swig. You earned it.”
I looked down at the flask and tried to imagine the last time Miller would’ve washed it. “Nah, it’s okay. I can just lick at whatever of it got on my hand.”
“Bull shit,” he said. “Take a drink. It’ll put hair on your balls.”
I wanted to tell him I don’t have a severe lack of testicular baldness, but I didn’t want him to give me an even more ridiculous excuse to drink from his greasy flask. I unfastened the lid and held the flask inches above my mouth. My plan was to drain it like a waterfall into my mouth to avoid any lip contact.
“Give me that!” Miller sneered as he snatched it from me. “If I knew you were gonna be such a god-dang pussy about it I would’ve never offered.”
“No, Lawrence! Please, no! I’m sorry! I swear, if I would’ve known—” Mya pleaded. “I was just being stupid… I didn’t mean it. He was just a stupid mistake.” She gasped, her head smeared across the window. Her exhales fogged over the opaque lens with her hair caught between.
“Lord, what’s wrong with her?” Miller asked taking all focus off the road.
I wrapped Mya up with both arms, “She fell asleep.”
“And this Lawrence…?” Miller continued.
I shook my head deliberating if I should bother to tell him the truth. “He’s the one that Mya and I see when we fall asleep. The one that causes our night terrors.”
“And you see him like this, too?”
“Something like that,” I said. “He’s my brother. He died in a car accident a little over a year ago. She just can’t seem to forgive herself.”
I couldn’t help but find myself transposed back in time to the night I heard Lawrence had driven into oncoming traffic. I was in the middle of a marathon of Gangster-movie Friday when two police officers knocked on our door. There were multiple deaths. To Lawrence’s credit he proved to be a selfish son of a bitch right up until his remaining moments. That night he found that Mya had exercised her feminine wonderings with a Mexican boy named Arsen. He was one of Lawrence’s so-called boys. Apparently Lawrence had caught a glimpse of it and beat his boy, Arsen, nearly to death before throwing him down a flight of stairs where his neck had allegedly snapped.
Mya felt guilt and I felt nothing. Be it speculation, but my lack of empathy for Lawrence in death seemed to subjugate me to his emphatic hauntings. And yet still seeing him beside his headstone endlessly picking, I cannot say that I feel anything more for him. He has done what people of his type often do—haphazardly die and rot.
Mya was still panting into my chest, her tears soaking into my shirt. I continued to try and soothe her. Miller observed her with lust and me with contempt. There was a moment of question where Miller opened his mouth then closed it, all while continually nodding his head like it was on a pivot.
“She needs a good priest to absolve her of sin, not some wild sheep chase to this Cassadaga. It’ll only lead to more sin.”
Mya frowned up at me, “You told him about Cassadaga? What’s wrong with you?”
“I didn’t say anything about it,” I whispered. I eyed the drunken Miller. I wrung my mind trying to figure out how he knew we were going to Cassadaga. He must have noticed my journal hanging out of the side pocket of my pack. Who knew how much he’d read from it. I would be mortified if Mya read it, let alone some stranger.
“The girl needs to come with me.” Miller was beginning to slur his words. “I’ll take you somewhere where you can get real help.”
“And where’s that?” I said. I was becoming more uncomfortable with Miller’s brashness by the second. Mya gripped me tighter.
Miller chuckled a bit, his throat high and reptilian. He cackled into his fist and lit up a smoke. He breathed it in and relaxed and for a few moments there was silence. Then, as if he’d just noticed I’d asked him a question, he said, “Never mind you. I’m taking the girl. She obviously needs my help.”
Mya bolted out of my hands. Leaning over me, she screamed, “Stop the van, right now! I’m not fucking around!” She was waving a pocket knife.
“You read my journal, didn’t you?” I said.
“Enough to know she ain’t Henrietta and you ain’t her brother, neither.”
“Look,” I tried to reason. “Please just let us go. There’s no need to take us anywhere. Besides, she’s crazier than a shithouse rat. She won’t think twice about using that thing.”
Miller let out an inebriated snort, “Use that thing? She would never! She loves me, can’t you see! Girls her age just don’t know how to show it.”
Still trembling on the outer edges of sanity, also figuring in her last encounter with Lawrence, Mya’s skin was paper white. In a shrill voice she said, “Love you? You’ve got to be kidding me! I don’t even know you, dude.”
Miller shook his head, “That’s the demon in you talkin’. But don’t you worry, honey. I’ll get you fixed up right good.”
In a final look of desperation, I searched out the side mirror of the passenger door for the cowboy. But there was nothing, just the beaten-up road we’d already passed over. I wasn’t sure what I was thinking at that point. It was more of a haze of bodily movement where my mind no longer comprehended reason. I whispered over to Mya to buckle up. She gave me that look of hers that I’ve seen many times before. This time the look said, You Dipshit, we’re being kidnapped and you’re worried about seat belts?
Pulling my best Clint Eastwood, I grunted through gritted teeth, sounding more like his understudy with a dire case of bronchitis, “Are you feeling lucky?”
Miller, confused, looked at me like I just sneezed all over him. I wanted to berate him for not knowing Dirty Harry, but I stayed in character.
“You’ve got to think to yourself, there’s two of us and one of you. What are your chances of taking both of us at the same time?” A sharp scowl spread across Miller’s face. I continued, “So you’ve got to ask yourself a question… Do I feel lucky?”
“What in the name of all that is holy are you talkin’ about?”
“Well, do ya, punk?”
“Just stop, Louie.” Mya said as she pinched the bridge of her nose in frustration.
In that moment, I felt like the asshole. It was a completely condescending reaction to how I thought it would play out, the quakes of my abstract thunder dispersed, but that wasn’t going to stop me. In that brief moment, as I sat there, Miller studying me from the corner of his eyes and Mya sitting there losing all sense of hope, I sat between them in capered silence, barely able to contain myself.
Then… well, maybe I felt a little Lawrence in me…
The van sped up, the speedometer quickly rising, my foot clamping down on the gas as Miller and I fought for control of the steering wheel. The van zigged and zagged, finding nearly every damn pothole in the road. Mya yanked her knife back out of her pocket and stuck it in Miller’s leg. Screaming, Miller grabbed Mya by her hair. She shrieked for help, and with all my might I turned the wheel to the right. Gravity pulled the top of the van to the ground in one effortless motion.
After the screeching of metal on gravel stopped, Mya and I climbed up to the passenger door and thrust it open. Miller lay lifeless in a muddled ball, his head positioned out of sync with the rest of him.
I perched myself so that I was nearly hanging over the side of the van, my feet dangling limply. Mya found a spot next to me. She leaned her head on my shoulder. I looked up at a rusted sign that appeared to have once been green. It was sun-baked, but you could still make out what it said—60 miles to Jacksonville.
“We’re about a day away from Cassadaga,” I said.
I felt Mya trembling into my arm, “We should’ve just stayed with the cowboy. I don’t think I can walk now… we’ll never make it.”
Smirking, I pinched her chin, “Never say never.”
She burst out laughing. Once again, I felt like a complete idiot. She cackled, “You’ve got to be the tackiest guy I’ve ever met!”
As Mya continued to laugh, I could’ve sworn I heard a soft knocking, in soft successions, beating helplessly below us. I quickly put my hand up to Mya to shush her. “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” she asked.
“It’s coming from the inside of the van.” I hopped down and landed on all fours in loose gravel. The front wheels of the van were missing their hubcaps, and the back tire flat with the road looked to be blown out.
The knocking continued as I made my way towards the back door of the van. It was slow and weak, but it was definitely alive. I rested my hand on the handle of the door not quite sure if I was ready to see what was on the other side.
“I hear it now,” Mya called down. “What do you think it is?”
I licked my lips. I knew we had to open the door to get to our packs, but at the same time I knew that whatever was in there could be detrimental to our journey. Or worse, slow us down.
Suddenly Mya hopped up and down, pointing out behind us towards the remote distance of the cracked asphalt. “Look!” she screamed. “There’s someone coming this way!” I looked back, and sure enough a trail of dust blew into view. “I think it’s him! The cowboy! He’s here to save us! The universe is finally on our side, Louie!”
“I’ll grab our packs,” I called up to her. “Just stay up there so he’ll see us.”
I opened the door and I could barely believe my eyes. A young, pudgy boy with a pig nose was strapped down to a stretcher by leather brown belts. With his free hand, which seemed to have just come loose from the crash, he clanked a wrench against the wall. Everything had topsided—medical supplies, wired shelves, lumpy white sacks, and other assorted junk. I grabbed his wrist and began to loosen the ties of the leather belt.
I heard Mya cheering. The van bounced up and down under her weight. I stopped working the belt. The buckle still held the boy’s arm snugly against the metal of the stretcher. There were too many variables, I thought. The cowboy only had enough room for two in his sidecar. The boy would most definitely slow us down, or make us reconsider who would stay behind. One thing hung in my mind above all, Mya and I had to stay together, and I couldn’t take any chances of separation by taking on a straggler.
Mine and Mya’s packs were about an arm’s length away. As I dragged each one out at a time, the pudgy boy’s head reached up, his eyes resting heavily on me. He had black straps along his face and mouth, something shoved down his jaws made it impossible for him to utter sound, but he breathed out his nose in short quick bursts.
“We’re going to make it, Louie.”
“Thank God,” I said, as I slammed the door shut.
“What was that noise?”
I shook my head, “I don’t know. Nothing back there but junk.”
We were once again making our way south to Cassadaga in the sidecar of the cowboy’s motorbike. The sharp thuds from the van lingered with me as we sped down the broken road. I knew the boy’s eyes, wide and pleading, would pursue me through hapless dreams and recollections for years to come. I clenched my fists, feeling more like Lawrence by the second. The guilt that I possessed—or rather what I thought I possessed from Lawrence’s death, had to be wrong. I felt something new. This sensation slid down my chest and into my gut like a serpent, coiling itself snugly around my inner being. I closed my eyes to find myself with him again. Greeted so vacantly with his constant picking and tearing of flesh from bone, his eyeless face, thin and expressionless, tilted up towards me. His thin lips curved at the corners, and unlike our other encounters, he smiled approvingly.
I awoke to a firm shake. This time it was Mya who woke me. She was gleaming as she pointed to a wooden sign ahead. It read Cassadaga in faded orange paint which appeared to have once been red. The anticipation struck me like a hail of pins to the chest.
As we rode along the dusty streets, the dark smoke blaring from the motorbike’s exhaust, forming thick smog around us, it was blatant that they had been abandoned for some time. There were old shop signs quietly advertising things like: Séances, Spiritual Healing, Certified Mediums, Jude is Here…
“It looks dead!” yelled the cowboy over the engine.
We continued through the streets a little longer; the cowboy rounded the small town a few more times, squelching our desire more with each passing. There was no trace of life in the spiritual camp—we climbed out of the sidecar and did some searching—no one occupying the little shops on the main drag, the abandoned houses on the outskirts were clumped in thickets and rotten foundations.
Both Mya and I settled in the middle of the road, caked in dust. She was broken. All the hope and faith she put into our self-conceived pipedream had come to an end. Like finding the Fountain of Youth, I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself. Dreams are dreams and fiction, fiction. All the sacrifices that had led us to Cassadaga, and we just assumed getting there alone would be enough. The rest would just sort of take care of itself.
The sun had moved closer to the horizon and the cowboy wasn’t looking to spend the night in Cassadaga. He offered to let us carry on with him. Said he liked our company. I think he just felt bad for us. I glanced over at Mya, but she was a rock. This had been her destination and, now that she was here, extinguished of hope, Mya would remain to become part of the lost town.
“You kids shouldn’t stay here too long,” the cowboy said. He looked down at us and went a little pale. “Look, if you ain’t gonna come with me, there’s a town close by. You just might be able to lift some supplies from it.” He pulled an ornament from his front pocket. He held it out to me, “It’s not much but it may be just enough to trade for a hot meal.” I took it and thanked him a few times.
Soon it was just Mya and I. The tin of caffeine tablets crackled in my pocket. I pulled it out to find that we were out. The sun was setting, a gateway between two worlds—day and night—glistened in contradicting hues as bursts of orange and purple blended over us in the sky. That place between dream and reality became blurred, adjoining each in a level plane of existence.
I took Mya’s hand and inched closer. “Are you ready?” I asked.
She nodded and leaned on my shoulder. It was as if we were at a countdown. Our sleep deprivation aligned flawlessly with the setting sun. My thoughts began to slow down. The guilt began to settle in as consciousness submerged into sleep. Our combined guilt, the soulless ghoul, would be upon us again; this time there would be no hope. It was like a circle of Hell specifically designed for us.
“Louie,” I heard Mya softly call my name. I couldn’t make out the rest of what she was saying. The sun had set and my consciousness had gone elsewhere. Down, down, I felt myself sink. I was welcomed by familiar company sitting lifelessly before me. Lawrence had picked himself clean and was now nothing more than a pile of bones. Even his headstone had seemed eroded from weather and time.
I felt a whisper inside of me, “Murder by inertia…”
A bright being ignited before me. It was those same eyes I saw on the highway. They beckoned for me. They screamed for me. I couldn’t help myself… I began to tear away at the flesh of my arm. The guilt ceaselessly eating away at me…
Zach Eritz submerses himself in both fiction and screenwriting. A co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based Independent production company, Kept Shut Productions, he is a firm advocate of combining literature with film. Working on both sides of the fence is beneficial in bringing ideas to life in more than one plane. To view some of his current work, please click on the following links: facebook.com/keptshutproductions and keptshutcreations.com.
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