by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 1
This story contains references to mental illness, sexual situations, and adult language. Reader discretion is advised.
In his two weeks spent in St. Anna’s psychiatric care ward, no one came to visit Eric. No one called. The life he had outside the confines of the hospital flowed on, untroubled by his absence. When the day came, he stepped from the hospital doors back into the already baking heat of midmorning, suitcase in hand and stupidly hopeful. No one was there to meet him. Deflating, he slumped into a bench and called an Uber, wondering why the loneliness felt so much more acute in the garish light of day.
When he finally saw those people he called friends, they spoke to him as though he had just returned from a very boring vacation. “Oh my god, you look so rested! Next time, you should try this spa I’ve been going to. It’s absolutely ah-mazing!” said Blakely and then proceeded to twitter on about whatever skin care regime she swore by that month. It all sounded like witchcraft to Eric.
In another conversation, Isaac’s eyes swelled slightly at the news of where Eric had been. He said, “That sucks. I guess everyone needs some time away sometimes. Oh, dude! Did I tell you about the sick resort I’m taking Paige to? It’s gonna be fire, bro!” The thread of the conversation was swept away to discussion of some plastic sounding beach resort whose activities centered, bafflingly, around a saltwater pool. Eric tried and failed to pretend he cared.
Toward the end of the evening, Mutual Friend Mike pulled Eric aside. “Hey, man, look you’ve got to stop with the hospital talk. You’re bumming everyone out. I love ya and I’m glad you’re back but, you’ve got to just let it go. Cool? Rad.” Without waiting for an actual reply, Mike cuffed Eric on the shoulder and returned to the others. After the incredulity wore off, Eric quaffed his drink and left without a word to anyone.
Days later on a rare drizzly night when he felt as though one more second spent rattling around the crushing silence of his apartment might shatter his remaining sanity, he called his mother. “Hi, Mom,” he said trying not to sound too much like he wanted a hug.
“You sound tired,” she said a mote of motherly concern in her voice.
His shoulders felt like they were draped in a stone mantle so heavy that it compressed his spine all the way down to the tail bone. His eyes ached like he had been on them for hours. “I’m alright.”
“Are you getting enough sleep?” she said in a prodding, pointy instrument of a voice.
“Yeah” he said sounding utterly exhausted. An interrogation, for which she was clearly winding up, was not why he called.
“Have you been using that weighted blanket I sent you?”
“Yeah. I just wanted—,” he started.
“What about the melatonin? Have you been taking that every night? You have to take it every night or else it won’t work.”
“I’m taking it every night.” A painful tightness blossomed between his eyebrows.
“Good. Well, I’m glad to hear that you are doing so well,” she said. The concern eased out of her with a quiet sigh. She had long held to the belief that a good night’s sleep was all it took to cure pretty much anything.
“Mom, can we talk for a minute?” he asked trying to keep the worst of the ache out of his voice.
“Sorry but Dad and I are already late for the theater. Try to get to bed early tonight. I love you!”
“I love you too, Mom.” The line went dead before he finished.
Outside, rain ran down the windowpane like trailing tears. His whole body felt heavy and locked, his joints rusting into place. Some time passed but he took no notice, staring with unseeing eyes into the night.
The phone buzzed, startling him no less than if he had been shot. New message from Katie Tinder. He had entered her contact that way before their first date and had since learned her real last name. Yet, he had never got around to changing it in his phone. Did he want to meet for a drink? Eric realized, with some surprise, that a drink sounded like it was perhaps the only good thing in the world that night.
One drink turned to many and after last call, they both stumbled, trashed and dripping with rain, to Katie’s front door. “You should come in. My roommate’s gone for the weekend,” she said. Her words slurred luxuriantly from her full lips. She giggled while she fumbled with her keys. When the door opened, she half slumped, half leaned into him wrapping her arm around his waist. They staggered like a three-legged racer to her couch and collapsed together with a satisfied flop.
Eric sighed and noted with nebulous amusement that he could no longer feel the tip of his nose. Yup, he was definitely drunk but at least he didn’t have the spins… Yet. “Thanks for tonight. It’s the most fun I’ve had since I got back.”
“Night’s not over yet,” she said. Her breath was sultry on his ear and sent a tingle down his spine.
“I just needed this, you know,” he said. “After everything, it’s just nice to do something human again, something that makes me feel like my old self.”
Her lips worked their way down his neck toward the hollow of his collar bone. “Mmhmm,” she moaned softly and then traced the tip of her tongue back up to his ear lobe.
“It’s just that ever since I’ve been back everyone’s been treating me different like I’m made of glass or like I’ve got some horrible, shameful secret. I’m not broken, and I hate that they look at me that way. I just had a rough couple months, but I got help and I’m better now,” he said, his words flowing with that teetering sway unique to rambled, intoxicated confessions. “It’s like my therapist has been saying—”
“You really need to stop talking,” she said pulling away to look him in the eye. Hers were a frosty, jagged blue. “If I wanted a pussy, I’d play with my own. Now are you going to keep bleeding all over my couch or are you going to shut up and fuck me like a man?”
Eric walked home alone in the rain, Katie’s final frustrated barbs echoing in his ears. He was drenched to the bone. The chill that had seeped in through his goose pimpled flesh was starting to become a numbness where the water dripped from his fingertips and squelched around his toes. He didn’t mind. Numbness would be a welcome change.
“Be careful. I love you.”
“I will be. I love you too, Mom,” said Eric as he ended the call. He was feeling slightly guilty for lying to her. But he was being careful, jut not careful in the sense that she meant. His plan to hitchhike to the Grand Canyon and spend a few days wandering the trails alone was neither pragmatic nor safe. He understood that but what his mother wouldn’t understand was that the risk was necessary. The old darkness, the kind that put him in the hospital, had been creeping in at the seams of his loneliness for weeks and had only grow stronger as he was tossed about a squalling sea of acquaintances and fair-weather friends. A clean slate was needed if he was ever going to rise above the suffocating mire of his depression.
His mother could understand all that, but she would fail to grasp that, if he was going to snatch his life back from the clutching gloom, Eric first needed to remind himself that he could depend on himself. He needed to know that whatever else his failings were, he would not let himself down. So yes, there was risk but to do otherwise would risk so, so much more… Or at least he hoped that was true.
The early morning was dull and grayed by a thick marine layer that coated the rolling hills. The moisture made the morning cool and comfortable. Eric savored the nourishment of the wet air against his skin. He needed this. The miles that passed beneath his boots would untangle the knots in his head and, when he returned, he would have a memory, refreshing and intimate, that he could call on when he was feeling low again. For though his spirits were buoyed at the moment, they would find a trough sooner or later. He knew this and it was item one on the list of things he was trying to learn to accept.
The item two was that he made poor decisions in selecting his friends. He surrounded himself with selfish, cartoonish creatures with no more emotional depth than a shot glass… Maybe. Or perhaps, he was expecting too much of them. It must be hard for them to be reminded of his darkest days, when he was so low he couldn’t even dream of the sky, much less see it. That had to be a painful memory for them. Didn’t it? But it hadn’t been their darkness. It was his own which he had never lain at their feet. And hadn’t group therapy taught him that he was supposedly part of a tribe, that he shouldn’t have to go it alone? So why wouldn’t a single one of them shut the fuck up for two seconds and just listen? He wasn’t asking any of them to carry the weight that hung perpetually over his shoulders, only to unburden himself for the moment. Was that too much to ask? He would have gladly done the same for them. He was right the first time. He did have shit taste in friends.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, Eric plodded along with such smoldering anger that it might have been him that burnt off the morning fog instead of the mounting heat of the day. By noon, he was too tired and too hot to be angry any longer. He huddled in the dwindling shade of a stunted tree off the side of the road and wondered where he would sleep tonight. The first night was always going to be one spent under the stars as no one in Orange County would pick up a hitchhiker and it would take him all day to get through this stretch of Cleveland National Forest to the 15 on the other side. Out there he had better odds of getting a lift.
But that was tomorrow’s problem. Today was about avoiding heat exhaustion and finding a decent place to spend the night. Eric withdrew a sandwich from his bag and absently chewed the slightly crushed bread, rolling his options over in his mind. It felt good to need only answer simple questions of survival instead of the existential muck that civilized life forced on him. And there were worse places to spend an afternoon than in the gnarled shade of a juniper.
The question of where to make camp had ultimately been an easy one. A convenient hollow among the brush had presented itself near sunset and Eric ensconced himself comfortably within. The night was clear and already a splash of stars managed to puncture the light pollution of the coastal cities. He lay on his back looking up into the night and feeling contented for the first time in—he couldn’t remember how long. Day one had been a success. He had made good time despite the steepness of the hills and had even found a working water pump off one of the fire roads. Bunking down with the security of a full hydration pack gave him a little pang of pride. Today had been a win and, with that last little sigh of a thought, his eyes fluttered shut. He slept deeply and dreamed of being at sea.
The morning mist was thick as he had ever seen, like the fog machine kind they pump into werewolf films. It cloyed and swirled at the edges of Eric’s tiny camp. Normally, he enjoyed fog in a boyish way, but this mist hung heavy and solid, looming like standing stones around a sacrificial altar. A feeling like being buried alive was beginning to surge like vomit up his throat and he swallowed hard to force it back down. His few possessions packed up quickly but not rapidly enough to outrun the prickling on the nape of his neck like unseen eyes crawling along his skin.
Bag packed and slung over his shoulders, Eric’s metered stride hastened to a trot, then a jog, and finally a dead sprint as he fled down the side trail toward the main, rooster tails of sand splashed behind. The mist kept pace, rolling over the path behind him like an eerie tide. A maddening fear that something cloaked in the inscrutable fog nipped at his heels flooded him. Dread panic dashed him forward as if sucked up by a crashing wave. His chest felt crushed. He was gasping for air.
Eric skittered to a stop, folded over with his hands on his thighs and gulped the chill morning air. Nothing had been chasing him. His cheeks pinked and he felt like a child sprinting from the bathroom to the safety of his bedroom night-light. Twenty-five and still a scared little boy.
Ragged breaths smoothed at the edges until they were metered and near relaxed enough to allow him the fantasy of control once again. Eric frowned. Looking around, he did not recognize this section of the trail from yesterday. Had he run too far and missed the main path? No that couldn’t be it. He would have noticed if he and crossed another trail. He shrugged and guessed that the mist was simply thick enough to obscure the landmarks he remembered. Without knowing what else to do, he continued down the trail, his gait slow and tense.
No familiar landmarks had presented themselves. Yet, he had walked nearly two hours. He considered turning back and retracing his steps but oddly the fog had not abated. It swallowed the trail behind him so that his recent past was reduced to ghostly shadows. Rationality told him it was only fog; it would part if he stepped into it. But something deeper, more primal and more in tune with the rhythms of the world whispered warnings against setting foot in that unholy mist. There was something sinister about it. Eric was becoming increasingly convinced of that. Here and there a shadow would move in the mist at the edge of his periphery and creaking, groaning sounds would drift out. Just trees. Old trees groaning in the wind. Nothing more.
But the shadows did not move like swaying trees. They scuttled and skulked. And if there was wind, why couldn’t he feel it? Thick, sticky panic bubbled in his belly, burning up the back of his throat. Shallowing the acid burn, he focused on pressing forward, one cautious step at a time and convinced down to his very toes that stepping onto the mist meant certain death.
The day waxed and began to wane again. The sun never penetrated the fog with more than a spectral half-light. Walking the unfamiliar trail, Eric was now certain that he was completely lost. The path lead through a gap between two high peaks that were encrusted with pines and fir trees, unlike any native to the area. They grew tall and still, watching through the ever-present mist like grim sentinels. More than once, Eric had the sense the trees themselves were watching him. He didn’t like their cold eyes on him. Their rough bark looked a deep gray in the dying light and more than a few were scarred by powerful claw marks that left raw gouges down their trunks.
Eventually, the mist began to thin until he could see the yellow twinkle of lights on the slopes below. There tucked into a shallow valley was a small town surrounded by a wooden palisade. It had become night at some point while he was lost in the fog and the few lights that shone picked out the village in a relief of bottomless shadows. Icy fingers dripped down his spine. It might have been from the chill wind that buffeted the exposed ridge or from the haunted, ooze of the jaundice light below. Eric could not tell but he did not like the feel of either.
He hesitated, uncertain whether to turn back into the looming fog or to descend into the menacing, will-o-the-wisp lights of the town. He would almost certainly become lost in the mist and, yet the deep primal thing inside wondered if that was preferable to whatever lurked in the land ahead. Somewhere in the night a lone howl pierced the stillness and shook Eric from his indecision. He jogged down the crumbling hillside, sand and small stones tumbling ahead like heralds of his coming. For better or worse, he would take his chances beyond the mist.
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