All the color is gone, like it just drained away. I didn’t notice at first. Weeks, maybe months. But all the color is gone. I mean, it’s the same old neighborhood. The same old street—but it’s not what I remember. The houses are dark, the windows void and dull. Even the flowers look drab. And where are all the kids, laughing and running around, all playful? If they’re here, they don’t show themselves. Maybe they’re hiding, watching me. Mocking me from behind the bushes and the spaces between the buildings where we used to play.
The same old mini-mart. Same stink, same stains on the walkway, same crappy cars in the parking lot. And damn, the lotto’s up to eighty-six million. Get me a quick pick and a pack of Camels. Throw in a scratcher, and a fifth of Stoli for good luck. Lady behind the counter wants to know everybody. Frumpy hair, blouse too tight for her big boobs, all wrinkled and smiling at me.
“Hi, mister. You having a nice day?”
Shit, I don’t know what a nice day looks like. All drab and tangled, and getting nowhere fast. A nice day is the one that’s over. Done. And I’m still here. So yeah, I guess it’s a nice day. It’s almost over—and I’m still here. I grab my smokes and Stoli and head outside to lean against a post, watch folks drift in and out, some getting all excited, eyes wide. “Cigs on sale, $4.29. And hooey. Look at that lotto. Did ya see it? Eighty-six mill!”
“Fuck yeah.” I nod. Try to sound hopeful, a coin to my scratcher. Silver flakes of hope and denial.
Aw, Christ. There’s Jaycee. Punk ass owes me twenty bucks. He don’t look so good. Fucking horse thief. Fresh tracks on his arm. I know he doesn’t have it, but I ask anyways. “Hey, Jaycee, got my money?” I light a cigarette and sneak a swig of Stoli.
“Oh shit, Jack—” He looks into his pack like he might find something he knows ain’t there. “—all I got’s enough to get some smokes and a tall one.” He looks away, then turns back. “I can get you your money. Eddie, down by the river, he owes me. You wanna come with? He’s got some good toke. Might share us some.”
“Well, shit. Alright. I guess.”
The river. Land of lost souls at the edge of the world. My gut twists. I don’t wanna go. I might not come back. Back to what? Oh, fuck it.
Jaycee gets his Colt and his smokes. He’s got a packet of jerky stuffed under his shirt. He picks up his pack and slips the jerky inside, and we start off. The clouds are heavy. They weigh on me, walking toward the river with Jaycee. He sure likes to yap, looking up at the darkening sky. Street lights start to flicker.
“Big rain coming, Jack. The cops been running people out again, sayin’ she’s gonna flood. Any excuse to clear out the river. But they ain’t found Eddie’s place yet. Bet they never will.”
That figures. The river’s a mess. Full of trash, living and otherwise. Hard to find a pile of shit in a shithole. And this guy, Eddie—he’s got one crazy pile of shit he calls home. But he’s kinda whacked out. The dude scares me.
We walk through town, lights of shops and signs blinking and buzzing. Rain coming for sure, a fine mist already settling, slick and shiny. Cars and buildings and streets wet and dank, the color drained out of everything. I used to like the rain.
Some ass in a muscle car comes around the corner way too fast, like we aren’t even here, gutter water flying in our faces. “Aw, Christ.” It tastes sour and putrid.
“You stupid prick.” I wave my fist, but he’s gone. Never even saw us. I guess we’re invisible. Like the color. All drained out of ourselves. I wash my mouth out with a swig of Stoli, and light another smoke. Jaycee lights one too, still talking, cig hanging out his mouth, orange glow bobbing with his step. The mist is getting thick.
An old coot comes straggling toward town, pack and roll across his back. He stops to look us over. He eyes my bottle wrapped in the bag and licks his blistered lips. He points at the tattoo on my arm. “I-raq or Afghani?”
I pull my sleeve down. “What difference does it make?”
He shrugs, and brings his thumb to his chest. “Nam, ’67.” He hawks up some phlegm and lets it fly. He turns to Jaycee. “Spare one of them smokes, young fella?”
Jaycee gives him a cigarette and strikes a match. The coot takes a drag and savors it, letting the smoke out in a long thin stream. “You fellas ain’t heading to the river are ya? Big storm coming—in case you ain’t noticed. They sayin’ it’s gonna flood. Cops been down there most the afternoon, tellin’ people to clear out. Ain’t nobody in their right minds gonna be down there tonight.”
The old guy looks like he hasn’t seen indoor plumbing for a couple of decades. Matted hair, stuffing leaching out through the seams of his tattered coat. He doesn’t look stupid. He looks like a survivor.
Jaycee puffs himself up. “We’re heading for Eddie’s place. On the higher ground. We’ll be alright.”
“Suit yerself. I’m gonna find a nice dry garage somewheres.” The coot puts his head down and trods on. We do the same.
The sky is burnt and blackened, standing on the river’s edge, at the top of an old concrete stair. The water is running fast and grey between sandy rivulets of litter and scrub. Smells like life rotting away. On the other side the land runs wild. A jungle of willow and reed and trash and lives gone wrong. I look for Charon, guarding his river of pain. Guess we’ll have to cross the water by ourselves.
What am I afraid of? I played here as a kid. I swam in this water. It wasn’t so filthy then. It was beautiful. Blue, green, gold. All the colors of the world—of life and death and in between. All the color’s just drained away. I don’t know this place anymore.
“Come on, Jack. Gonna be dark soon.” Jaycee knows the riverbed like the back of his sore-pocked hand. Every trail, every camp, every measly soul and every rotten grave. I’ve been down here a thousand times and I still get lost.
He pulls me across. It’s cold and wet. We hop from islet to islet, jumping over the fast-moving strands of water. He moves like a ferret, the little fuck. I try to keep up. I slip on a rock in the shallows, smack my knee hard going down. Damn, it’s cold. And shit, my Stoli is gone. I clamber out of the muck, shake the water from my shoes. I push to catch up, a narrow path not wide enough for a dog.
Another fingerlet of river. Jaycee crouches at the bank and feels along the edge. He grabs something and tugs. He looks at me with a stupid grin. “Oh yeah. Gonna be some good eatin’ tonight.” He pulls a line out and holds up a fat trout still kicking with fight. He works the hook free, slips her into his pack. What the hell else does he have stuffed into that bag? Besides a tall can of Colt and some jerky, getting all fishy.
“Come on, Jack. Dark is coming.”
The mist is dotted by fat droplets falling from the fading sky. Beyond this strand of river, a black wall of trees and scrub. Trails of smoke spiral skyward. Must be eight or nine campfires scattered in those woods, warming the souls of the lost ones. The droplets are falling heavier, and I’m bone cold in my wet shoes and pants. We move from stone to stone, and across a few well-placed planks, but I’m not sure we’ll be getting back the way we came. On the other side we climb a greasy embankment. Jaycee stops at a tangled thicket of scrub and reed and trees. He looks around. He looks at me. He grins again. Light is fading, but I swear, Jaycee just dissolves into the tangle.
I shake my head. “What the hell, Jaycee? Where’d you go?”
“Come on, Jack. Just step on through.”
The thicket is talking to me. I don’t like it. I raise my arms across my face and step toward the voice. Like stepping through a veil. And I’m gone. Or maybe I’m found.
“Stay close, Jack. This way. And watch out for chance.”
What the hell does that mean?
Jaycee ducks into a passage and I follow, winding through a tunnel of clutter and shadow. Jesus, it’s a maze in here, a ramshackle hive of tunnels and ledges and hiding places, dirty blankets and needles and stained pillows and empty bottles and old furniture, all woven within the trees and thicket. Boards and chain link and crates and scrap and signs and broken railing and old tires and what not—all the crap that people throw away for whatever reason. It’s all here. A dismal wonderland of trash and desperation.
There’s light up ahead. A shadow in the tunnel. Something lunges at me, jaws snapping. I nearly shit myself.
“What the hell?” My arm is snagged. The demon takes me down. God dammed beast of muscle and bone crouching over me, teeth bared, jowls dripping drool on my face. I’m holding my breath, my heart wrenching in my chest. One wrong move and this dog is gonna rip my throat out.
“Jaycee, you stupid shit. Why’d you bring me here? God dammit.”
“Shhh. Be cool man. Just lie still. He won’t hurt you.”
“The fuck he won’t. Why you standing over there, ready to run?”
The dog sniffs my face and growls.
Jaycee grins. “Well, I ain’t stupid, bro.” He steps closer. “Be cool, Chance. Good dog.”
He rummages through his pack and pulls out some jerky.
“Here boy.” The dog sniffs and steps toward Jaycee. “Here you go.”
The dog snatches the jerky and takes off. I’m still lying on the ground. Every muscle in my body is trembling. Watch out for chance. Christ. I push myself up. My knees are shaking. I can’t stop ’em. “Jesus, Jaycee. You could’ve told me this place was guarded by a devil fucking demon dog. Goddamn thing could’a killed me.”
“Aw, Chance is cool, Jack. He just don’t know—”
“Who the fuck are you?”
I turn around. It’s Eddie, big blade in his bony hand, ready to cut some fresh meat. He’s shirtless, made of tatted skin and sinew, all stretched tight over his bony frame. His billy beard makes him look meaner than the dog.
“Hey, Eddie, it’s me, Jaycee. This is my buddy, Jack. You remember Jack.”
I nod. Eddie looks me over, the blade glinting in the dim light.
“Don’t be fucking with my dog, assholes. He’ll tear you apart. Or I will.” He turns and walks back toward the light. Jaycee follows. I follow Jaycee—but I don’t want to. We duck through a short passage and into a woven cavern of branch and reed. Smoke from a fire spirals up through a hole at the top. Someone sits huddled on the other side, a woman, I think, covered in shadow and a thick blanket, or maybe it’s an old rug. Eddie sits down. He grabs a stick and pokes at the fire, letting loose a swirling column of spark and ash.
Jaycee steps closer and sits on a rock at the rim of the pit. I do the same. I’m still shaking. I can’t tell if it’s the cold or my brush with the jaws of death. The fire brings relief, black flames warming the stones that ring the pit. Jaycee takes the Colt from his pack. He pops it open, takes a long swig and offers the can to Eddie.
Eddie accepts the offering, tosses back a few gulps and wipes his mouth with a tatted arm. “Thought you were the goddamned cops. They been chasing people out of the river bottom with their bullshit. I’m no idiot. We’re cool here.”
Jaycee nods. But I can hear the rain. It’s coming down now, real hard. Droplets find their way through the smoke hole, hitting the fire with a hiss. I look over the flames at the huddled one, and catch her eye. She’s looking at me. I can’t tell how old she is, but there is something ancient and knowing in her gaze. The fire is popping in the rain, and she reaches out to warm her hands. Her skin is dark, her fingers long and slender. They tremble. Is she cold or frightened? She looks up toward the hole. She glances at Eddie. She looks back to me, gives a small nod.
Jaycee opens his pack and shows Eddie his catch. “How about we cook this baby up, Eddie. Near two-pounds, she is.”
Eddie smiles. “Fuck yea. Give’er here.”
Jaycee hands Eddie the fish. She wriggles in protest. Damn thing is still alive. She gulps for air. Eddie slaps her on a rock and takes his knife from the sheath on his belt. He’s got a gleam in his eye that I don’t like. He puts the point of the knife in the fish’s bung hole and makes a slice right up the belly. Guts spill onto the rock, hot enough to make ’em sizzle. Eddie takes his poker and skewers the fish. He sets her over the fire. The flames reach up to lick her shimmering skin, a black eye staring.
“What are you afraid of?” The dark one is looking at me from beneath her cowl. Her voice is tentative, her face a mosaic of eyes and cheeks and lips and dancing shadow.
What am I afraid of? Didn’t I just ask myself that very question? Before this skinny ferret dragged my ass across the river.
The dog is back, his attention on the fish. Eddie takes his knife and scrapes up the sizzling guts and holds them out. The dog steps toward him.
Eddie snarls. “Get back, goddammit.”
The dog drops low and pushes away, wincing.
“That’s better.” Eddie flings the guts at Chance’s feet. The dog devours the slop in a single desperate gulp. He looks at me and lets out a low growl.
“I’m afraid of that fucking dog tearing my throat out.”
“No.” She shakes her head. “There’s something more. You’ve been hurt, yes? You’ve been hiding in the dark, wounded. Lost.”
I don’t want to answer. My hurt is none of her business. My pain. My loneliness. Outside, the rain is pummeling the woven hovel. I’m amazed at how dry it is in here, but I can feel the river rumbling close. Water is starting to seep through the reeds. The weave trembles in the light of the fire.
Eddie pulls the fish back and sets it on a piece of cardboard. He cuts around the head, pulls the bones out nice and clean, tosses them into the fire. With a few quick strokes of the knife he cuts the fish into pieces and hands them around. I take mine. The flesh smells of life freshly vacated. I take a bite. The meat is hot and flaky. I didn’t realize how hungry I am.
“There’s something you need. Something you want. Something you don’t believe you deserve.”
She pulls her cowl back. Dark hair streaked with silver, her face is strong and worn. A rugged beauty that I don’t readily understand. Something deep and painful and familiar. I have the overwhelming desire to be held by this woman, to cry in her arms. The dog is looking at me again, a low rumbling growl. He wants my fish.
“Leave me alone, goddammit.”
Am I talking to the dog or to the woman? Eddie holds his knife up, waving the upturned blade, his sinewy arm scrawled with symbols and script sinister and cryptic.
“The fuck you say? Don’t be talking to my dog like that. You show some respect, or maybe he will tear your throat out.”
Eddie’s got that look in his eye—the look that says he may go off at any moment. His blade shines like white heat in the light of the fire. I can feel my muscles twist. The guy is whack. I’ve seen him go off on people for no good reason. A broken spring that maims without regard.
Jaycee leans forward. “Come on, Eddie. We don’t want no trouble. Thought you might have some good smoke to share. That weed you grow is wicked good.”
Eddie looks at Jaycee. “That’s why you’re here? For some fucking toke? Why didn’t you say so, you little twerp? Sure, I got some good smoke. You got five bucks?” He reaches into a tin and pulls out a fat joint.
Jaycee sits back. “Shit, Eddie. I don’t have no money. Besides, you owe me twenty-eight bucks—”
“I don’t owe nobody shit, man. You gotta lot of balls, coming here, asking for toke, and telling me I owe you. Maybe I should cut one of your balls off. Feed it to Chance.”
The dark one shakes her head. “Leave them alone, Eddie. No more. There’s enough pain to go around.”
Eddie growls. “What do you know about pain, bitch? You’re dead. You’re a fucking ghost.”
She looks back at me. I feel naked, weak. I can hear the shadows of my own demons outside, moaning. They want in.
She nods. “I know pain. I see it in your eyes. That pain will hold you prisoner, feed on you, devour you—until you let go. Until you can forgive.”
I think my heart is about to burst. I’m flooded with grief. Drowning in my own despair. I can’t forgive anyone. Not the shadows of the dead all around me. Not even myself. I don’t know what forgiveness means. I can feel the rushing water through the ground. The groaning of the rain is almost deafening. The branches and reeds glisten in the firelight.
Jaycee stands up. “Come on, Eddie. Twenty-eight bucks. Two weeks ago. You promised you’d pay me after your harvest.”
“The fuck I did.”
Eddie is up now, too. The knife is flashing in his hand. But Jaycee is pissed. I’ve never seen him like this. His shadow rises across the weave. “You’re a prick, Eddie. A cheating prick.”
The dog is growling. Eddie takes a swipe at Jaycee with his blade. Jaycee slips sideways, but the blade catches his arm. A clean red slice.
“No, Eddie, don’t.” The woman is on her knees. I push myself up.
“Fuck you, Eddie.” Jaycee pulls a knife from under his shirt. He lunges at Eddie, his blade slashing in thin quick strokes. Eddie spins around and lands his knife in Jaycee’s side, a smile on his face that says ‘I gotcha.’
Jaycee grunts, but he has his hand around Eddie’s wrist, the blade held fast and deep. Eddie is caught. His smile fades. He tries to pull away. Jaycee brings his knife to Eddie’s belly, in and up. Eddie lets loose a low guttural moan. His eyes roll back and he falls into Jaycee’s arms.
I reach for Jaycee and he pushes Eddie off. He grabs his side and looks at me. “Oh Jesus, Jack—”
The shadows let loose a deafening cry and the wall of the hovel surrenders. The woman is thrown at me and we are engulfed in a flood of muck, plunged forward by the river’s ire into the blackened rain of night.
I gasp for air and cling to the arms of my terrified passenger. We slam into a tree, desperate shadows rushing past. I breathe. She gulps and stutters, pressed against my back, coughing water and hot breath in my ear. “There.” She points, and almost loses her hold.
I can see the lights of town, the river’s edge some two hundred feet away. Ahead more trees bending in the rush.
“Hold on.” I push away, and let the swirling current carry us forward. We slam into another tree. Another gulp of air and another push. Three more times and we’re close to the edge, but my arms are nearly done. We’re battered by debris, the swollen river relentless in its pull.
“I don’t know if I can do this.” My own voice sounds distant, carried away in the water’s rush.
Her hold tightens. “You can make it. Don’t give up.”
For some reason I believe her, more than I have believed anyone in my whole messed up life.
“Hold tight and don’t let go.” I shove off from the tree, spinning in the twisting water, the railing at the old stair coming fast. The current lifts us and I reach out. “Got it.”
I grab hold, but the force nearly tears my arm from its socket. With every bit of my strength I pull us up and onto the steps, kneeling, coughing, the murky water rushing past. My passenger collapses in front of me, gasping for air. She wipes the water from her face and turns to me, seeing into me, into the depths of my very core, beyond my fear and doubt.
“You’re ok, Jacob. Just let go. You’re safe now. Just let go.” Something in her words cuts through me. I feel myself give out. All of my pain, all of my hurt and sorrow and confusion come rushing up in a torrent. I fall into her arms. I’m weeping and she holds me to her breast, warm and safe and whole.
How does she know my name?
I begin to breathe again, deep halting breaths of exodus and release, her slender hand caressing my hair and face. I should be dead. I should be washed down Charon’s river, carried out to sea, and even glad for it. Yet, for some strange reason I feel elated. I haven’t felt so right, so alive, in a very long time.
I lift my head and look into her eyes. “You’re not a ghost. You’re an angel. An angel of light.” I push myself up, and offer my hand. She reaches out. A swell washes across the steps and pulls me down. Her fingers slip from mine. I see her gasp before I am sucked under. Tumbling, churning, swallowed up by the current, devoured by the river’s fury.
I am lost.
In the quiet darkness, Charon nods to me. He takes my hand to guide me into his wavering boat. I don’t want to go. I ache for life, for forgiveness. I turn from him, and the boatman drifts into the shadows.
The sounds of gulls in the air. I open my eyes. Leaves and sunlight in my face, all around me water rises and falls in a tidal swell, a strange and lulling calm. I’m caught on a thick branch, my hair a tangled mess. I can see the coast. Peaceful. Quiet. Drifting away. Something is splashing nearby, coming toward me. I should feel afraid, but I don’t.
Through the leaves I see an animal paddling near. The beast clambers onto the branch, panting. Fucking Chance. The damn dog barks a greeting, his eyes big and grateful. “Fuck you, Chance. And welcome aboard.” I look up. Birds circling against a deep blue sky.
The most beautiful blue I have ever seen.