by Christian Carvajal – A wedge of clouds swept over Lake Quinault like pregnant bombers. It wasn’t yet raining, but Sam knew it would soon because the atmosphere held the color of teardrops, heavy as regret. He steered his old pickup down meandering back roads away from the coast and deeper into rainforest. FM radio and phone coverage faded. Evergreens leaned toward him like overly affectionate aunts, their branches scraping nature’s messages into the sides of Sam’s truck. He itched for a cigarette, but those had been left behind, too.
He wasn’t ready to gather the strength he needed to be alone with his thoughts, and the crackles and pops on the radio threatened to undo him. So he grabbed the nearest CD, a Bob Seger oldie, and tried to listen to the music not the words. Those held traps to devour him that must be avoided.
He turned a corner too roughly, jouncing on rutted earth, and heard Ranger behind him scrabbling for purchase. Recolonizing a wadded blanket in the truck bed, the shepherd lay back on his paws, gazing mournfully at nothing, awaiting his respite to come. His stoicism was rewarded when, a few minutes later, Sam pulled up beside a padlocked gate. He unclasped the key from a larger ring, hopped out and unlocked the gate, swinging it wide and bracing it with the rock he left there for exactly that function. Ranger barked, aware they were close now. Sam hopped into the cab with a grunt, rolled forward through the gate and paused, stymied by the option to close and relock the gate. No point, he thought. Nothing to keep out or in anymore. He grunted and continued a few hundred yards till the path hit a chaotic tangle of weeds and forest growth. He turned the key and his mind went away for a moment. He regarded the forest, which gave birth to no new answers.
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose, grunted and vacated the truck. Slapped its side. “Let’s go, bud.” The dog complied, bounding out to lunge toward a nearby tree. He relieved himself loudly, eyes gazing inward as if to make sure his bladder drained itself properly. Birds twittered, repeating their greatest hits before the rain could bring unscheduled intermission.
Sam had found excuses to come out here at least every two or three months for the last twenty years, even after Dillon was born seven years ago, demolishing his longstanding life schedule. Kids could do that. They cost you sleep, they cost you every penny you earned, they scratched lines into your face, but their energy and dependence filled a hole you never knew you contained. When they left the hole reappeared, a jagged, screaming absence that said your puzzle has not been completed. You were flawed now, defective, the wound left behind ever bleeding and painful to touch.
In the garage back home a fishing pole leaned against the corner, alone, three feet long, its reel scaled to fit miniature hands. The figures on a Teen Titans sleeping bag grew indistinct as the plastic sleeve around them gathered dust. They too would be reclaimed by the elements of earth. Somewhere the sickness of time took its unholy course, pulling little bones apart and ceding soft cheeks into wretched corruption.
Sam meant to fish that afternoon but never baited his hook. Instead he gazed at the lake and fed his dinner to Ranger. He sat for another two hours tearing chunks of vegetation apart, unconscious equivalent to scattering chicken bones and entrails, awaiting explanation from God. His butt got cold. He threw another stick for Ranger to retrieve, then followed the dog back to camp.
At sundown the rain arrived in earnest, drenching the mossy roof of the cabin. It wove the air into a labyrinth that trapped coherent sound, obliging it to wander the world from nowhere to nowhere, obscure as scrambled FM-radio signals. Drops blew against dusty windows, sideways, skittering across them like claws. Even Ranger, who’d accompanied Sam on dozens of these excursions, was unnerved by the downpour. He curled beneath Sam’s bare-mattress bunk and whimpered a high-pitched aria of canine confusion.
When Sam dreamed that night, he dreamed again of Dillon. His sickness gave him no choice. He dreamed of his lost son, the tiny perfection of Dillon’s baby teeth, the drunken scrawl of his signature on a stick-legged drawing of Ranger, the Lego constructions still open for business or poised for takeoff in a bedroom as empty as ancient skulls. At first the dreams were almost restorative. Here was Dillon stomping hard on first base along the path toward his first T-ball run. Here was Casey, the neighbor’s girl, praising Dillon as a “very good carer.” And he was. The boy cared about everything, embracing elements of the world he understood and eager to learn more. He loved dinosaurs, of course, but also work trucks and ninjas and Minecraft and magic and pancakes. He was a good boy, a kind little boy, and the loss of him devoured all Sam’s light. Things went wrong. They just went unbearably wrong sometimes. So the ghost of Dillon sang a cereal jingle in Sam’s memory dream. This was not a moment Sam really witnessed in life. Not that it mattered. The cops told him what happened. They told Rosalie, too, and his wife had never been the same again. In Sam’s nightmare now, the face of his son was obscured by the hood of Dillon’s jacket as he skipped toward the general store four blocks from home.
Only four little blocks. The rain fell and it fell and it fell.
In his sleep Sam heard screams. They were his. Ranger whined in response. Neither woke. The rain fell.
He was texting. The fucking kid had been texting his mom so he drifted around the corner too wide, clipping Dillon at thirty miles an hour and launching him into a chain link fence. It could’ve happened to just about anyone. But it happened to Dillon, and that unraveled the world, and nothing would ever be the same again, never, ever, gone.
Sam gouged the air and cried his boy’s name, rescaling consciousness like a cliff face, the void below him urging him to let go and fall all the way down into darkness.
Outside the cabin, humidity wilted the sheaf of unsigned divorce papers on the passenger side of Sam’s truck. He’d deal with those when he got home. Whenever that was. He didn’t know. He’d quit his job two months before, unable to concentrate around dangerous equipment or even deal with minor provocations without losing his temper. He broke Randy Somers’ cheek on a job site for no meaner an offense than rolled eyes at a mispronounced word. He spent most nights puking splashes of cheap beer behind a bar where none found joy or peace, a dark place that fit the cold weight of Sam’s constant despair. The only friend he had now was Ranger, but even Ranger felt unwanted and lacked any means of understanding why. All the dog understood was the boy he loved deserted him, left him alone with this suffering human in a cold, joyless house. The woman was gone. The music was gone. Whatever spirit a human family brings to a dog’s life, that was gone, too.
The rain fell. It drove itself into the earth cruelly as bullets.
When it grew lighter Sam fed the dog while numbly chewing half a breakfast bar, which felt and tasted like mud in his throat. Dressed in the clothes he donned a week ago, he gathered his rod, reel and lures, then tossed them aside and wandered to the lake a lost man, a Lear sent alone to his tempest. Tilting the rowboat to pour out a gush of cold water, he lifted his face to sobbing rain and breathed it in, his heart a clot of agony that beat poisonous rage. He left Ranger on the bank and rowed thoughtlessly into the mist. The dog barked behind him, offended and worried, then danced into the lake and out again, cold and alone.
The rain fell. It slashed the lake and tore it to haze.
Sam dropped the oars and clenched aching hands. They filled with water and wept into the boat beside his shoes. And the pain of all this gray pain and weeping was too much, too much for one skin to contain, too much for Sam’s soul to endure, and he cried out at last, his tears joining the rain. The rain fell. It clouded his eyes and bubbled in his lips and swept it all down into darkness. The rain seeped through the cracks into the earth to do what rain has always done, rebuild the world and stir it to life. Because rain is a cycle. Dillon knew that. He explained it all to Sam and Sam heard, he heard and even remembered but did not understand.
He would understand now. He would have his understanding or damn God forever, damn the bastard straight to Hell grayer than Sam’s broken world. Sam felt pain white as sunlight, horrible as birth, and he tilted his chin and screamed that pain into the sky, its wet reptile agony ascending his throat, a vomitous serpent that puked out and blackened the clouds.
The rain fell. It fell as pure water, it fell as cold tears, it fell as hot blood. A mist of crimson tinged the air and Sam wept, the worst of his demons released to be borne by us all. The rain poured down as blood. It spattered the lake and coalesced. When Sam opened his eyes he was startled to see it all around him. Tendrils merged as they sank beneath the waters, there to reunite. Sam leaned forward and gave himself over to that unknowable mystery, his mind and spirit splintering into shards. The tendrils knitted into fingers. They swam upward to find him. The rain stopped. The clouds withheld judgment. A little hand reached toward the sky.
This story is in C Is for Collection
Three other short stories by Christian Carvajal, “Division by Zero,” “Blow Out the Candles” and “Time Capsule” are published in our 2022 anthology, Mud Flat Shorts (mostly fiction).