Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
Another nightmare. I wake up in a pool of my own sweat. My heart is pounding and my brain feels like its going to break through my skull. Through the window the sun has just begun to rise, banishing the demons and the darkness of night back to Hell where they belong. The light shines through the blinds and covers my room in cage-like shadows. I sit up, pick my watch up off of my nightstand, and slide it on my wrist. I pull my rifle out from under the bed, knocking over a newly emptied whisky bottle. That explains the headache. I reach for the bottle and toss it into the waste basket. Whatever I had done last night is completely forgotten now. I grab a rag and polish the barrel until I can see a blurred reflection of myself looking back at me. I count each counterclockwise rotation. Its monotonous, but it calms my nerves. It is all part of my routine.
My routine keeps me alive.
My routine keeps me sane.
I lay my gun to the side and look out the window at the sun as it crawls over the mountain peaks that line the sky like jagged teeth. It is a nice morning. Yet I wish I could fully appreciate it. I can’t seem to distract myself from my dream. People used to tell me they have a hard time remembering their dreams. But not me. My dreams stay burned into my brain like a brand. Replaying themselves whenever I have a moment of peace.
It was dark. I was hiding. From what, I don’t know. But I knew it was there. I could smell it’s foul, festering stench. I could hear its heavy, shuffled footsteps. I closed my eyes, in the vague hopes that it would somehow shelter me. I could hear the footsteps slide closer and closer until I couldn’t hear them anymore. Thinking the worst was over I opened my eyes. In front of me there was a figure, a woman. Her thin face is shrouded with long, dripping wet hair. I cannot see her eyes, but I know she can see me.
Then I woke up.
I can’t remember the last time I had a pleasant dream. Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever had a pleasant dream. As a boy I was plagued by night terrors. I’d wake up in the night screaming. My mother would come running in to calm me down. She’d hold me and tell me to focus on the sound of her voice. She told me to think happy thoughts and I’d never have one again. It never worked. Happy thoughts don’t come easy to me. So the nightmares always stayed. But whose to say that’s a bad thing? I’v never understood why people insist on having “sweet dreams.” It sets expectations too high for life. Nightmares keep you grounded. They keep things in perspective. Life can seem to be terrible but the horrors it holds for you will never quite be as bad as what your subconscious can create while you sleep.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
I make myself a quick breakfast. The last of the rabbit. A measly portion like this isn’t enough to last me until tomorrow. I’ll have to catch another if I want dinner tonight. I look down at my watch again and attempt time out a schedule for the day. If I head out now I can still have time to chop wood before the sun goes down. Between keeping warm last night and making breakfast, I only left myself half a log and a few twigs for kindling. If there was anything worse than a cold night up in these mountains, it was a cold night in the dark. The mind begins to wander when left alone in the dark. It fills the blackness with anything it can muster. Often times it shows you the last thing you want to see.
I put on my coat, grab my rifle, and make my way towards the door. As it creaks open, it fills the house with the frigid winter air. The chill immediately stabs at my face. I’ll definitely have to make this hunting trip quick if I don’t want to freeze to death tonight. My old tracks create a path in the snow from my last venture into the woods. I follow them, matching my boot into each corresponding footprint. Each step crunches the snow and sends echos ringing through the silence around me.
The forest cages the small clearing that houses my cabin. The towering pines stretch for miles. Beyond them, the mountains climb high into the sky. Beyond them… I don’t know. I don’t care to know. This vast tundra of frozen ground is my home. My kingdom. My wasteland.
I keep away from the outside world and it keeps away from me. It is an unspoken bond that has served me well these past three years. I loath the world I left behind. Day in and day out, I found myself surrounded by people I could not stand to be around. It was all too much for me. I don’t remember exactly when I realized I couldn’t take it anymore. But one day I knew I had to get away while I could, while I still had an ounce of sanity left within me.
I severed almost all ties I had to that life. Anyone worth knowing was gone and I had no interest in meeting anyone new. The only contact I still have is an old friend; Harry, who’s a trucker. Once a month, his route takes him to a dirt road about five miles away from my cabin. He keeps me supplied with my bare essentials and anything I might need or want. I never ask for much. Some canned food, booze, hunting supplies, a few books, and fresh water. I haven’t actually seen him since he first brought me up here two years ago. He leaves the cargo for me, I fetch it and bring it here. Easy as that. Every now and then he’ll leave a note for me. But all they do is sit in crumpled balls under my bed. I’ve never bothered reading one.
I look from my watch up at the sun shining through the tree’s canopy. I have been on this little shit’s trail for three hours. Endlessly following him through this labyrinth of trees. Any time I get a clear shot, the bastard scurries off. I followed him to the edge of a pond within the forest. I squat behind a fallen tree and rest my elbows on its cold, frozen bark waiting for him to stop moving for a second so I can get him in my sights. I’ve been here for a while now. But that’s what hunting takes. Patience. A hell of a lot of patience. But I’m used to this. When you live a life like I do, patience is a big part of your day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take a walk down to Harry’s route and leave him a list for parts so I can build a few traps. It would make getting food a lot easier. I could use the spare time to engage myself in other ways. I never did mind hunting though, there’s a certain satisfaction in feasting on a meal you killed yourself. The thought of it makes my stomach rumble with hunger.
At last he quits moving. I align his small, furry body with the crosshairs when something in my peripheral catches my eye. Beneath the ice of the frozen pond I see a blurred, shadow slowly moving about. I’ve tried fishing in that pond enough times to know that there is nothing living in there. So what is that? It can’t be a log. It’s moving around too much. Whatever is under there has to be alive.
My eyes dart back to the crosshairs for a second. The rabbit is gone. I let myself get distracted and now it’s run off. I punch the overturned tree, splitting the skin on my knuckles a bit. No. I can’t let this work myself up too much. I have a hard time bringing myself down after I work myself up. If I let myself get angry, I’ll never be able to focus hard enough to catch this little shit. I head closer to the edge of the pond to where he was standing and look for a trace of tracks to point which direction he went. The shadow under the ice moves again.
I can see it more clearly now. It is a large silhouette eerily swaying beneath the ice. I lay down my rifle and inch closer to the bank of the pond. The shape looks almost…human. I look across the ice’s surface. There is no break or crack to be seen. Nothing could have fallen in and still be alive. I put a bit of my weight on the ice. It’s solid. It should be stable enough for me to walk on. Step by step, I carefully make my way to the shadow as it carries on its ghoulish dance. I loom over it and can see through the frosted layer between us that it is certainly human. This is impossible. How did they get down there? How are they still alive? I bend down to my knees and wipe away the layer of snow atop the ice. A hand is pressed against the other side. It is a thin, dainty hand. A woman’s. Wrapped around her pale ring finger is a gold wedding band. I press my hand against the ice to match her’s. I have to find a way to get her out. I survey the area to see if there is a nearby rock or branch I can use to break the ice. I shift my weight to stand up.
In an instant, the ice shatters beneath my feet and sends me plummeting into the sub zero temperatures below its surface. The water so cold it burns my skin with its touch. My entire body momentarily shuts down as I sink further down. As soon as my head is submerged I am suddenly jolted back into consciousness. My arms flail desperately trying to find the edge of the ice to pull myself back up. My thoughts are rapid and incomprehensible. Somehow I am able to find the edge. I grip it hard and pull my torso onto the ice’s surface. I put my weight onto my elbows and force myself completely out of the water. The frigid air feels like summer compared the the depths I just crawled from. My body lies limp, staring into the sky as I try to catch my breath. My head is still spinning as if it hasn’t caught up to my body yet and is still drowning in those freezing waters.
The woman. What happened to her in all that commotion? I turn over and look into the hole. She is gone. Great. This is exactly what I need. No food and a vanishing woman. I stand my self up and carefully shuffle myself back to land. I can immediately feel the difference of solid ground under my feet through my soaking boots. I have to get out of these clothes unless I want to get hypothermia. I almost did when I first moved up here and it is not an experience I want to live through again.
I grab my rifle and begin to follow my footprints back home. That fucking rabbit. I hate it for bringing me here. Tomorrow I’ll gut that little shit and have the most satisfying meal of my life time.
As I make my way through the trees, I can’t help but think of the woman. I tell myself that my hunger and frustration must have gotten the better of me. Made me see things that weren’t there. But something about her gave me a strange feeling of deja vu. That pale, ringed hand seemed so strange yet so familiar.
Somehow I make it home. I don’t know how I did it. About half way there the cold began to set in and I contemplated stopping. I wanted to just lay down in the snow and let the cold consume me. But something about dying then and there seemed weak. Like I was giving up. I didn’t want to go out like that. For a while, death is such a foreign concept to us. It’s something we hear about, maybe imagine. But it’s all a fantasy. Something that is so far out of reach, it could never happen to you. Then suddenly it’s there. It comes in like an unwanted visitor that refuses to leave. It buries itself deep under your skin. You can’t see it but you know it’s there. For the rest of your life, however short or long that may be, it patiently waits there until it can claim you and attach itself to the next poor soul.
I slide my gun back under my bed and lay my soaked clothes next to the furnace. It’s still burning the last bit of left over wood from last night. It’s not giving off much heat anymore, but they’ll dry in time. I sit by the warm glow and try to get some color back in me. The warmth slowly begins to thaw me. At first the sharp contrast in temperature hurts my skin. But I welcome it. In the cold I had become numb to all sensation. It’s good to feel again.
Once I’m practically dry I put on a new outfit and head back outside to chop wood. I look up at the sky. I have about an hour or two before I lose the sun. I walk out the door and head to the other side of the cabin. I remove the large nylon tarp from the wood pile and pick up my axe. Although chopping wood is a chore, it’s one I sometimes enjoy. When I build up frustration after a bad day I need an outlet to get it all out. And I’ve had a hell of a day.
The wooden handle feels good in my grip. I hold on tight and bring the sharp metal blade high over my head. With everything I have I hurl it down into the log at my feet. In one clean motion, the log splits in two.
Whisky warms my entire body in a way only alcohol can do. The sun is gone, but my house is filled with a light orange glow. Within the furnace, bright flames lick and crawl over the logs. Letting out a hiss as they take over their new victim. The flames feed, growing ever stronger as the wood grows weaker. Eventually the ambush will end all they will leave behind is a dead, black husk of what existed before. The flames will jump and dance at the defeat of their prey. But in their celebration, they will grow ignorant and forget what had given them their power. They will attempt to maintain themselves on whatever they have left over, but they were greedy and left no spare traces. Their inevitable defeat is brought upon by their own victory. But it is not all for nothing. Amongst his dying brothers, an ember will always hang on to life. He will be taken away by the wind, to a new and strange place. But in his confusion, he will find new victims to prey upon. Once again, he will grow strong.
I take back a swig of whisky and laugh at the idea of the never ending cycle. I usually try to save my alcohol for a celebration. When I can properly enjoy it with a good meal. But I’ve had a long day and no longer give a shit. I fill my mouth with the amber liquid and swallow. It burns like hell going down but settles nicely in my stomach.
Most of the bottle is empty. I probably should have stopped a while ago. But I didn’t care. I deserved to treat myself after what I’ve been through today. It’s safe to say that I am hammered. I remember when I used to get drunk like this in the city. After a long work week, Saturday nights were usually spent with my face down against a cold bar with an empty glass in my hand and an open tab. The bars were loud and the people were annoying, but I was always able to get drunk enough to down them out. Somehow I’d make it home and in bed, usually making a mess and trashing the house in the process.
The floor beneath my ass grows harder and more uncomfortable. I grab a table ledge and pull myself to my feet. The room moves uncontrollably as I make my way into the kitchen. I punch the wall to tell it to stop, but it doesn’t listen. I need to take it easy or I’m going to be sick. I slump over the sink and turn the water on. The cool water pours over my hands and settles me. I splash some in my face and look out the window. Why did I come out here alone? Ive only ever needed myself. But sometimes I do get a little lonely.
The clouds fully engulf the moon, making my cabin the only source of light. I focus into the darkness and am filled with a sense of dread. Something is out there. At first I think I’m seeing things. But then I see it again, slowly moving toward the cabin. I press my nose against the glass. I tell myself that it’s probably just a wolf or a deer, but the shape is human. A woman now stands just outside the cabin. Her hair is long and hangs in her face. She’s wearing a long, white night gown. She is soaking wet. She is the woman from the ice.
She does not move. She just stands there, looking down at her feet. My eyes are drawn to her left hand. I can’t get the image of it pressed against the ice out of my head. That pale, thin hand with the gold wedding band. I look back to her face. She is now looking directly at me. Her gaze pierces through her dripping hair and locks onto me. I have never felt such an uneasy feeling in my life. I am sick to my stomach now. I flail my arms, gesturing for her to look away or hopefully just leave. But she stays where she is, fixated on me.
I can’t take this anymore. I turn away from her and run from my kitchen, through my living room, and into my bed room. I just need some sleep. Tomorrow all of this will go away and I can get back into the swing of things. My head is reeling. The room continues to move around me. I look down at my bed, but I can’t bring it into focus. I lean forward and reach for it but miss and fall to the floor. I fail to brace myself and my head thumps against the floor. The pain shoots through me as I lay there. I groan and open my eyes. Under the bed lay several of the crumpled up notes from Harry. The haze of my fall begins to clear and I make out the words “police” and “suspicious” written on one. What the hell? I grab the paper and unfold it. The words spin around the page as I try to read them. I rub my eyes and try to focus.
Hope you’re doing okay. The police questioned me and were suspicious for a while. But I think we’re in the clear now. You don’t have to worry about them finding you up there. Hope these supplies last you until next month. Keep in touch.
Police? What the hell is this all about? I open another note.
Was hoping you’d have gotten back to me. Are you doing okay? I’m getting worried about you. After what happened, I hope you’re keeping yourself together up there.
My head is going a mile a minute. What is he talking about? After what happened? Why should he be worried? What is going on? I grab another and quickly unfold it.
Really wish you’d get back to me. I don’t know what you’re doing with yourself all alone up there. I could give you some company when I come by if you need. I just worry what you might be doing to yourself. I’m sorry to bring this up and be so blunt, but a guy doesn’t just drown his wife and walk away like nothing happened. Really, you can talk to me about it. Please let me know how you’re doing.
What is he getting at? He has to be fucking with me. I toss the papers back under the bed. I was never married and I sure as hell have never killed anyone. I’m not hiding from anyone. I’m here because I want to be. I need the isolation. Don’t I? I’m so confused. I’ve been through too much tonight. I can’t take this right now.
I look down at my hands. My fingers are feverishly shaking. I bring myself to my knees. I couldn’t kill anyone. Could I? I look at my left hand. What is wrong with me? How did I never notice this? A faded ring of pale white skin wraps the base of my ring finger. I feel like a was beaten over the head. My thoughts scramble and slowly come together.
I had another day of my boss chewing me out at work. I came home agitated, on edge, and roaring drunk. I just wanted to be left alone to drink. And she knew that. But she yelled. She yelled at me for coming home drunk every other night. We fought. We screamed. We threw things at each other. Eventually she said she was done with me and went into the bathroom to start a bath to calm herself down. But I wasn’t calm. I needed to tell her exactly what I thought about her and her shit. How could she just walk away like that. Like nothing happened. Like we never loved each other. Like I wasn’t worth her time. Then she started humming. That hum that got under my skin. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t take her anymore.
I burry my face in my hands. My tears run down my palms and fall to the floor. I can hear foot steps coming in through the living room. It’s her. Why can’t she just leave me alone? Why can’t she just let me be? I just want to be left alone.
The fire has begun to die down. The light doesn’t reach my room anymore. I sit in the dark on my bedroom floor. I can hear her footsteps getting closer. She begins to hum. I can’t take this. I crawl to the corner of the room next to my dresser. Just leave me alone. Please. Her footsteps grow closer and closer. My toes curl and my heart races. I shut my eyes. Just go away. Please go away. You’re not real. You’re dead. I killed you. I fucking killed you. Just go. Let me live. Let me forget.
It is quiet. Is she gone? I open my eyes. She is inches away from my face. I try to scream. But I can’t. Her long, brown hair hangs over her face. Dripping on the floor between us. Her eyes look deep within me. I begin to get light headed. My eyes grow heavy and I fall to the floor. Everything flies by me. Except her. She stays in focus. Fixated on me.
Then everything is black.
Another nightmare. I wake up in a pool of my own sweat. My heart is pounding and my head feels like its going to break through my skull. Through the window the sun has just begun to rise, banishing the demons and the darkness of night back to Hell. I sit up and pull my rifle out from under the bed, knocking over a newly emptied whisky bottle. That explains the headache. I reach for the bottle and toss it in the waste basket. It clinks against the other bottles. Whatever I had done last night is completely forgotten now. I grab a rag and polish the barrel until I can see a blurred reflection of myself looking back at me. I count each counterclockwise rotation. Its monotonous, but it calms my nerves. It is all part of my routine.
My routine keeps me alive.
My routine keeps me sane.