Wandering: This Could Be Hell Or Worse

Illustration by Alexis Morelos

By now, Christopher had been making way for two months, slept for a third of it, and ate for too little of it. He walked until he collapsed each day, he ate as he walked and stopped only when he needed to sleep or defecate. Every direction looked the same beside the single road leading to the mountains forth of him, and the shallow horizon behind. Grey muddied the sky, and thunderous bangs echoed some seconds after a bright blue flickered in the sky; they lasted for even longer here. It was dark, and it was cold, and it was windy. Dirty air supplied dust and ash, and Christopher counteracted with a cloth over his nose and mouth. When he walked, the wind shoved him and scratched at his naked eyes, brushing dusty specs across his face. It was loud; not just the electric sky, but the speeding air, as if the whole world became a whistle screaming into his ears. It frightened him during those first days.

Whistling wind never scared him before, but an episode of a T.V show changed that for him, funny enough, because the show wasn’t even serious about itself. A windy day had forced the protagonist to leave town due to his body structure creating a whistle and attracting harmful jellyfish. Hiding in a cave, the protagonist made rock versions of himself to stand the grounds and whistle for those jellyfish, but he wasted his life away building them, only arriving back in town after it was buried in sand. That scene, that idea of absolute abandonment brought by powerful winds ruined breezy days for Christopher, and when trees rustled hard or a window wasn’t closed all the way, he heard the sounds of those whistles, the sound of wasting away, the sound of an empty world.

A week later he reached those mountains, it had rained twice. And for a time the air was clean and crisp, the road and dirt sides moist with settled particles, but so were his pack and boots. He wore two jackets and two shirts for the affair. A thick raincoat for warmth and shielding from the rain, and a light white one for when the sun came out. It hardly did come out, the sun, but was a scorching demon when so. Forty degrees with clouds, a hundred without, and it was better to cover his skin then let it peel. Skeleton trees lined the dark mountainside, and the road wound up beside them. Their bodies were black and chipped like glass. The sound of them cracking hauled back a winter some thirty years ago, of a light fire in a brick chimney, of the one he made today with the only wood left unburnt.

In his living room, Christopher sat with his parents and brother. The T.V played some Christmas special and he held a mug of hot chocolate. His father sat, focused on a gift unwrapping by his hands, repeating that they shouldn’t have. A log lay in the chimney, crackling and orange, and then the sounds of glass shattering. Christopher flipped his head to see one of the charcoal husks split, nothing had broken. His dad laughed a bit as he pulled out a large raincoat.

Christopher stared at the fire under a night sky filled with haze, atop a charred mountain, and he lay down to sleep, a whisper of his father saying they shouldn’t have.

He woke up, Christopher felt a deep-sunken cold breach him to the bone. Rain stomped out the weak flames, his face was wet around the cheeks. He levitated to his feet, bottles and jars clanked and rattled, and looked at the dead fire. And then he said a word.

“Crap.”

His mother would have slapped him, and even saying it he looked behind his back and around. He couldn’t see at all with the light of the moon filtered by clouds, but he managed to gather more wood and not chop his leg off. Most was brittle, but enough to support the small box he threw a tarp over and fitted himself into. Again, he fell asleep, and his mind went to work. Dreams collided, and he met an old friend.

The two ran with action figures in hand and giggled for a while. Exhausted, they slumped into chairs, still giggling and running their mouths since their legs couldn’t. Christopher looked at the tall sycamore tree at the center of his grassy yard, said his dad would build a treehouse within it, and they could play in it all day when they finished homework. He turned to his friend, but he was gone. When he ran inside, his parents were at the door with strange men, his little brother peaked behind, leaning like a crippled sapling.

Christopher stepped back outside and saw a hole where the tree used to be. The wood lay in neat stacks next to his friend. He was an adult standing there, chopping the wood, Christopher told him was sacred. He cried out at his friend, yelled for him to stop, but he turned slightly, his face gone, and said they needed it. Christopher ran inside to tell his mom and dad, but they weren’t there. They weren’t at the door, they weren’t in their bedroom or living room. Then he doubled back only to find them in the formerly empty kitchen, cooking and scrubbing pots, faces numb at the monotonous acts. He called at them, tried to tell them his friend tore out the sycamore. They looked at him confused, asked what friend. Christopher stammered. He scalped through his thoughts, but no name came up. He pointed outside the window at the man, much too anxious, and he could only make a muffled sound with his mouth as he desperately picked away for a name. And then he woke up.

“Caleb!” he shrieked, the echo rattling down the way he came, and the road confirmed the answer with him. Daylight met his eyes and seared his face. He looked up and the sky was open again, but now buildings obscured his vision. People stared at him in his rags, in his boxes of cardboard, only a hobo like himself could afford. He kind of tilted his head around, mouth slightly ajar, taking a second or two each turn, and the pedestrians lended their concerns. Are you fine, one would ask, another said let’s go softly to their partner. Christopher did not reply, just looked in awe at them. Real people, real faces, not his, not sand and dust nor wind faking whispers. He raised a hand to his face and touched skin to skin, he could feel it. He shifted to count his fingers, but not fingers, they were burnt splints of wood. Thunderous sound occupied the spaces, and he looked up to see the sky flash white. He was jolted awake, truly awake. The fire hadn’t burned out, but Christopher finally remembered the irony of why he needed it.