a serial short story, part three of three
read part one here
read part two here
by STEVEN FINKELSTEIN
ill stood up. “Well,” he said with a shrug, “I guess just a bit wouldn’t hurt.” He crossed over to take the bill from Henri. Why did he do it? There were a couple of reasons. The first, and the most important, was that there was something that he saw in Henri’s eyes which made him think that if he didn’t do what the other man wanted, violence would come next. Being, once again, a man who prided himself on reading the intentions of others, he felt, intuitively, that was the case. Then, also, he’d begun to be stricken with an intense feeling of morbidity. With a sense almost of predetermination, he’d begun to feel like there was a good chance he simply wasn’t going to get through this alive. It was the close quarters, probably, and the cold, and the darkness, and the fact that he was trapped with a dead man and another who had taken leave of his senses. It was kind of a ‘fuck it’, ‘why not?’, sort of attitude. He had never done coke before. Why not do it now? At least he might as well try to entertain himself, if this did indeed prove to be the end.
He put a finger to one nostril to close it off, as he’d seen Henri do, held one end of the bill to the other nostril, and inhaled along one of the glittering, snow-white lines. He was able to get about half of it before he had to stop. The sensation of the powder shooting up into his sinus cavity was neither entirely pleasant, nor entirely unpleasant, but somewhere in between. His nostril and the right side of his nose that he’d used had gone numb, and he could taste the stuff where the residue was dripping down the back of his throat. “Use the other nostril,” Henri suggested, and Gill did it, managing to get through the rest of the line. Now he felt the numbness equally in both sides of his nose, and indeed, most of his face. Again and again he snorted, trying to clear the congestion, and there was that awful taste in his mouth. He stood up and crossed to the window, where he scooped a handful of snow into his mouth and gargled it as it melted. He spat out the water onto the floor, and felt a bit better. And now he was high, too.
It mostly took the form of an intense awareness of himself and his surroundings that hadn’t been there before. His legs and feet were numb, but his arms and hands were tingling, as if he was experiencing an ongoing, mild electrical shock. The numbness of the nose and face remained. There was euphoria, and while he’d been worried that he would feel nervous or agitated, that really wasn’t the case at all. On the contrary, he felt much calmer, much more capable. He was aware of his bodily functions more acutely. He felt the rumbling in his stomach, the painful contractions of his body eating itself. He could feel the nervous tension in his back and shoulders. He could feel with remarkable clarity the beating of his heart, pure and strong, sending blood coursing, capillaries dilating, an internal symphony of which he was the conductor. In the limited light from the embers, all that was visible of Henri’s face was the teeth. “Do you want some more?” he said.
Prior to that, Gill had thought it was difficult to keep track of time, but after trying the coke, it became much, much harder. In the cabin, under the snow, day and night were meaningless. Three AM or three PM were the same; midnight passed for noon. Gill didn’t know exactly how or when it happened, but at some point he went from “trying” the drug to being part of the same binge in which Henri was embroiled. There was no food, but there was coke, more of it than they could get through with just the two of them even if they were down here for weeks on end. Gill at first tried to limit how much he was doing, but it became increasingly difficult because once he’d started, what was really the point of stopping? If he said yes five times in a row, what was the point of saying no the sixth time? He and Henri seemed to be getting along much better with each other now. If two people are spending an extended amount of time together, and one of them is doing drugs but the other isn’t, it is only natural that it should be the cause of tension between them, or at least put them on different wavelengths. Conversely, if the two people indulge together, it elicits a kind of bonding that is nearly effortless. In the case of Henri and Gill, the latter agreeing to share the former’s stash had put Henri in a better frame of mind. But something was still deeply wrong in the man’s head, and getting worse. Gill could tell. Sometimes Henri would appear fairly lucid, and would be able to engage in some mundane talk about different things. But the conversation kept going back to the deceased father. He was obsessing about it. And as he spoke, sharing more anecdotes about this asshole who wasn’t there more often than not, time and again his gaze drifted back to the frozen corpse where it lay on the army cot. Gill tried very hard to keep a mindset where he was wary of the man, vigilant, but yet still appeared both carefree and sympathetic. He had become an actor playing a role, but he knew that there could be serious repercussions if he didn’t play it well. Even when Henri appeared to be in control of himself, the manic glint never quite left his eye.
In this way, two more days passed, or possibly three. The two men were now, undeniably, in the process of starving. For someone who has seldom or never in their life gone without food for an extended period of time, starvation can teach a person a lot about themselves. The pain, for it is painful, is interspersed with almost Zen-like periods that are themselves similar to the states brought on by drug use. There can be visual or auditory hallucinations and out of body experiences. But the two men were also in the throes of a cocaine binge, which wrecked whatever tranquility might have been possible. Gill had tried multiple times to escape again; the results had been the same, and each time he reentered the cabin through the remains of a wrecked tunnel, Henri had laughed at him. The French Canadian was no longer trying to escape. He seemed to have accepted his fate, or maybe he had some other more obscure plan in mind. He didn’t seem interested in talking about it anymore, as much as Gill broached the subject.
The two, equally addled by coke (although Henri was still taking the lion’s share), no longer slept so much as lost consciousness, then regained it. Henri was sitting at the table, and was actually in mid sentence when his eyes rolled up and he fell forward, smacking his head on the rough, scarred wood; there he remained. Gill had no problem admitting to himself that he hoped the other man was dead. No such luck. He was breathing, if shallowly. He woke up a couple of hours later, disoriented, his face cherry red, his nose bleeding. Unabashed, he dabbed at it with his jacket sleeve.
Gill had lain down for a nap. He didn’t want to, afraid of what the other man might do, but he had no choice. He was delirious with fatigue. He lay on the floor in the darkness, next to his rucksack. He’d removed the Bowie knife from its plastic sheath, and he had it near at hand. The firewood was gone and, after drifting in darkness, the waking world was much the same. The only source of light was now his flashlight. It was sitting on the table, the beam pointed up at the ceiling. It lit only a small portion of the kitchen area, and something else, too…Henri, sitting on the army cot. Gill could just make out that he had taken the corpse of the grizzled old man, and managed to bend it at the waist so that its back and head could lean against the wall, while the legs and feet jutted out over the side. He had his arm around the corpse, and he was talking to it. Hearing Gill stirring, he left off whatever he’d been saying. “Good news!” he said. “Me and my father have reconciled. He apologized for treating me so badly over the years, and I’ve forgiven him. Big of me, wasn’t it?”
“Uh-huh,” Gill said. The other man’s voice was hoarse, but it carried the unmistakable inflection of the deranged. Henri had snapped.
“You see, in the Bible it teaches humility,” he said, “and forgiveness. So I’ve forgiven my father for certain…indiscretions on his part. Water under the bridge. You’ll be happy to know I’ve forgiven you, too, for drawing us off course, and likely dooming us to starve and freeze. It’s okay. We’re fine, me and you. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, amen.”
“Thanks.” Very slowly, with infinite care, Gill was reaching for the Bowie knife. He couldn’t see the other man’s face, out of range of the flashlight as it was, but he could feel those eyes on him. He was halfway worried that madness had brought about some sort of extra-sensory perception in Henri, that the man could now see in the dark.
“You know,” Henri said. “It’s funny, but you don’t seem properly penitent, to me. It’s all well and good to forgive people, but the people you forgive must also acknowledge that they’ve done wrong. You do acknowledge your wrongness, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” Gill said. “Extremely. Very much so.”
There was a lengthy pause, after which Henri’s voice had an even more sinister edge to it.
“You wouldn’t just be humoring me, by any chance, would you?”
You just can’t win with this guy, is what Gill thought, but what he said is “Not at all. You’re absolutely right, I have done wrong, and I admit it. It’s very magnanimous of you to have forgiven me. Your place in the kingdom of heaven is now assured.”
Gill could just make out Henri turning his head in the direction of the corpse, seemingly convening with it. “I agree, father,” he said. “Dad says he thinks you’re patronizing me. And that’s bad. That’s the sort of thing that’s inclined to make me angry.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that,” Gill said. He was drawing his legs up as stealthily as possible, getting into a crouch. He held the Bowie knife in his right hand, with the blade facing out, close against his forearm.
“No, we certainly wouldn’t,” Henri said. “But don’t worry. Dad says you didn’t mean any harm by it, so on his word I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. For now.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Dad tells me he knows what you’re thinking…that now is the time to leave, right? You’re thinking me and the old man aren’t the best company. No, no, it’s okay. He says he understands, he can be a little formal sometimes. He can even be a little…stiff.” And then he burst out in raucous laughter, giggling, chortling, eventually subsiding into a racking cough that had him doubled over, nearly falling off the cot. But again he was able to get himself under control, before Gill could seriously consider trying to take advantage. “The old man says, you want to try and leave again, go ahead. We won’t stop you, though I’m sure the snow will. Before you go, though, maybe we could beg your indulgence about something.”
“You remember back in the city, in the bar the night we met, we were talking arm wrestling? You said you dabbled in it too, that you were pretty good?”
Gill smiled mirthlessly. “You want to try me, Henri? Is that what you’re saying?”
The French Canadian removed his arm from around the shoulder of his frozen father surrogate, and stepped near to the table, more visible in the flashlight beam. “Well, it’s not so much me, really, it’s the old man. Dad says there’s not much in the way of entertainment down here, and he could use a bit of a show. And he thinks I can take you, you see? What he thinks, actually, is that I ought to teach you a lesson in humility. Because he feels you’ve got a superior attitude, you think your shit smells like tulips, or something. You didn’t want to share our coke, when we were nice enough to offer it to you. Hey, his words, not mine.”
Gill stood up. He was concealing his hand holding the knife behind his back. “Let me get this straight,” he said, failing to keep the profound weariness out of his voice. “If I agree to arm wrestle you, then afterwards, you have no problem with me leaving? Because you and your dad are right, I want out of here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I don’t like you, or whatever. It’s just that I have to go now. I’ve been here long enough, and I want out, even if I die trying. So is that okay with you? We arm wrestle one time, and then I leave?”
“That’s right,” Henri said. Standing over the thin, wan flashlight beam, his eyelids hooded, the man looked like a Halloween pumpkin. “That’s the deal.”
“And you wouldn’t have anything tricky in mind, would you? If I walk over there, you’re not going to try and tackle me or anything, are you?”
“Cross my heart,” Henri said. “And hope to die.” And he did cross himself.
“Fine,” Gill said. “Let’s get this over with.” He deftly slipped the knife into his belt, where he could reach it if necessary, and he stepped over to the table.
The flashlight’s batteries were dying. It flickered on and off until Henri picked it up and smacked it with the heel of his hand. The light remained on, for now, and Henri set it by the edge on one side of the table. It was bitterly cold, and Gill was concerned again about frostbite. His insulated layers could only do so much, but at the moment there were more pressing dangers. Henri’s “father,” the bearded corpse, had fallen over onto its side. Its glassy eyes still open, the failing light caught the yellowed teeth grinning at Gill like those of an animal caught in a trap. He tried not to look at it.
The table was of a size that when they each took a chair and set them across from each other, they could rest their elbows on it and join hands comfortably. Before they locked up, though, Henri insisted that they each do another line. Why not? What difference was it going to make, at this point? “And by the way,” Henri said. “The old man wants me to tell you, don’t humor me and let me win. He would know if you did that, and he wouldn’t like it. Don’t bullshit us. Give it all you’ve got.”
The men clasped hands. “That old timer isn’t talking,” Gill said. “You know why? Because he’s dead, and they don’t speak. I don’t know if you’ve really gone crazy, or if you’re just putting me on, or maybe it’s a little of both. Honestly, I don’t really care, at this point. Let’s just get through with this, and I’ll be on my way, and you can stay and do whatever you think is best.” He’d surprised himself by saying all that; he hadn’t been planning on it. It probably wasn’t a good idea to antagonize this man. Perhaps Gill had just lost patience. Perhaps the pressure was getting to him too, to the point that he was no longer willing to be delicate. Whatever the case, he saw Henri flinch. His eyes flickered, the jaw hardened, and a touch of the dazed euphoria went out of his expression.
“You shouldn’t say those sorts of things,” he said. “Go.” And their contest began. At first, they were just feeling each other out. A big part of arm wrestling is strength, but leverage and balance enter into it too. Within a minute or so, Gill could tell that the two of them were pretty evenly matched. It was a macho thing, arm wrestling, a primitive thing, just two people testing their wills against one another. Wherever it was done, for as long as it had been around, in taverns and bunkhouses, in logging camps and on military bases and below decks on seafaring vessels, it was always done with an audience around, to hoot and holler and egg the participants on, and to ridicule the eventual loser. This was different. There was the feeling that the game was being played for high stakes, though it hadn’t been explicitly stated just what those stakes were. It was true, Gill had given momentary consideration to just letting Henri win, but he wasn’t going to do that now. Not just because Henri had warned him against it, but because Gill had at last developed a serious dislike of the man. Crazy or not, who was he to fling off-the-wall accusations, when he was the one who should rightly take the blame for their predicament? Henri had made, and was making, a bad situation worse. All Gill wanted to do now was slam the other man’s arm down, strap on his rucksack, and leave this God-forsaken death trap. He’d make that last desperate bid for freedom, come what may, and if he survived, the life lessons that he gained would be many.
He had never been in a contest quite like this one before, though. The cocaine was singing through his body, his heart was thump-thump-thumping along, and there were other things happening too…doubtless it was just his imagination, and his chemical-abused brain playing tricks on him, but he could swear there were things moving, vague shapes gliding sinuously over and through and past one another, in the living darkness just outside the single, rapidly dimming flashlight beam. There were noises, too, bumps, creaks, moans, sobs, a pounding in his ears like that of oceanic tides. There was the cold, so thick and stifling that it hung in the air like a viscous jelly, threatening to smother both men in the suddenly oxygen-deprived room.
Then there was the man across from him. Henri’s face looked like the bearded visage of the devil himself. His pupils were dilated so they were taking up all of the real estate of his eyes. Frost completely coated his beard, and purplish bruises formed hollows below his eyes, which jumped and twitched involuntarily. As the two men began to strain, really pitting what strength and will remained against one another, Henri began to snort, sending strings of bloody mucus shooting from each nostril to land on the table. He was grinding his teeth together so hard that Gill thought they all must shatter at any moment or snap off at the gums. “The old man says…urrgghh…you’ve been very naughty,” Henri growled. “You didn’t eat your green beans, did you? Why didn’t you eat your green beans like you were supposed to?!”
“Shame about your father killing your mother,” Gill said, and he slammed the other man’s arm down on the table. The impact knocked the flashlight over. It could be heard rolling off into a corner somewhere, into what was now pitch, subterranean blackness. Henri gave a howl of rage and upended the table. There was a massive crash, and several more noises, the cause of which could only be guessed. Gill had the Bowie knife back in his hand, blade facing out for a quick cut and slash. A scraping sound might have been Henri picking up the chair. In that totality of cold and darkness, the hot blood that must be spilled would quickly cool.
In that part of the world, the late October snowstorm of that year would take on legendary status, as it was the worst on record in nearly a century. The weight of the snow in certain regions was such that it caused unprecedented breakage of mountain crags and overpasses, and that in turn caused avalanches that swallowed some of the more desolate lowlands. It was a hard winter, and fully five months, in some places, till the majority of the white stuff had melted away. But it was eleven days after the storm that in one of those valleys, where travelers seldom tread, there was a disruption in the snow, a concavity formed from which an arm emerged, and then a head, the face heavily bearded, and then the battered body of a man. He was observed only by a pair of white-tailed deer, which bounded swiftly away. The man had a rucksack on his back, and, strapped so that it hung around his chest, he had a red book bag, too, containing four kilos of Peruvian flake, less one serious binge. And as weak as the man was, he couldn’t help but smile as he struggled to his feet. He blew out through his nostrils to clear them before trudging south, taking the long way back toward civilization.
Steven Finkelstein is a graduate of the English Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of five books, a screenplay, a comic book series, and many short stories and essays. His work has been featured in a variety of publications both online and in print, in the US and abroad, most recently in Bare Back, Shadowland, and The Brave New Word. For more information on Steven and his writing, feel free to visit his website: stevenfinkelstein.com. Steven's story, Old Tom, appears in the August 2013 issue of HelloHorror. Steven's story, Snow, was serialized in HelloHorror and appears in the February 2014 issue as Part One and in the April 2014 issue as Part Two.
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