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Chapter 22: I am a Survivor

When it all becomes too much to bear, I toss the shovel aside and hoist myself out of the hole I’ve been digging for the last hour. This day needs to go fuck itself, because I am one negative thought away from crawling back in that hole with the pistol and never coming out.

The darkness we’re both bathed in is cool, but the humid air is sticking the shirt to my aching back. I’m out here despite the discomfort, digging a grave in my backyard with raw and bloodied hands, because this is what needs to happen for me to leave this place without being buried in guilt. I take this moment to rest my weary body and lean my forehead against a tree, drawing strength from wherever my mind can spare it.

It’s been raining a fine mist since the sun set, leaving the world glistening and musty. My work has provided me a shallow grave cut between two tall oaks, though it’s slowly filling with water. Thankfully, the brush alongside the house has grown up over my fifteen-year absence. Saplings are now tall enough to obstruct our neighbor’s view, which means I can dig a hole in the rain like a maniac and remain undisturbed, though I do have to tolerate Butcher’s eyes burning into me while I toil away. He’s been standing on the other side of the grave, smoke pouring from his lips as he idly pushes around mounds of dirt with a coal shovel he found leaning against the shed. He’s been studying me, though the bastard has yet to offer any help.

My father had always been a survivor. He spent twenty-five years surviving polio, infected bones, a capsized boat, a near drowning, and the loss of his parents to a house fire when he was only twelve. He then spent another thirty-five years surviving the unthinkable agony of losing the only person he ever loved. When his pain finally overtook his ability to cope, he ended it with a pistol in his mouth. He felt he had to do it, and I won’t blame him for feeling that way. He wasn’t weak in that moment; he wasn’t selfish; he was desperate and in excruciating pain. I would never wish that desperation on another living creature.

When I decided I’d put him to rest myself, I grabbed a shovel from the back of the shed. I had to walk past him again, stepping over the swarm of flies feasting in the dirt. It was my mess, and I was going to clean it up.

If I’d had the ability to bury him with my mother, I would have; but their bodies are useless now. Where they rot doesn’t matter. What’s left of their consciousness has already joined the great expanse of energy that surrounds us. If it’s meant to be, they’ll find one another again without any help from me.

The last grave I dug was by hand and for one of the monsters who prayed on my cowardice. This one’s cleaner, more respectful, and for one of my demons I should’ve been talking to this whole time.

“You missed your calling,” snickers Butcher through a cloud of white smoke.

I twist my head against the tree to look at him, barely visible through the darkened rain. “My what?”

He points to the sharp corners of the grave with his shovel. “You should’ve been a gravedigger. When given a spade, you make a nice, square hole.”

I scoff and look back at the base of the tree. I make a nice, square hole, apparently. “Who said I missed my calling?” I snap. “I’ve got plenty of time to go into this business. I can practice on that shadow in the truck; it’s not getting any fresher.”

He chuckles, “You’re impressing me, Hop. Gravedigging’s not easy. I should know.”

“I’d imagine your graves are a hell of a lot smaller than this one.”

He takes a long drag and smiles. “That they are. Most of the time a dumpster makes a fine enough casket.”

He’s so goddamn disrespectful. All the world’s a joke to him, and I’m just a twitchy pleb wearing funny glasses who apparently missed his calling as a churchyard fossor. I finally build up my strength, only to cave again, “Will you help me bring him out?” He remains silent, so I figuratively bite the bullet. “Please.”

His tone softens, and I can hear his smile falling from his voice. “About time you asked.”

He follows me back to the shed, and we’re now faced with the task of hauling out what’s left of the man that raised me. This shed will have to be torn down – probably better torched, too. You don’t get the smell of death out of anything; it somehow permeates wood and metal just as readily as cloth.

Butcher’s staring at my green face when he asks, “You want me to do this?”

Absolutely not. My last image of my father is not going to be of this asshole dragging him out to my perfect hole and rolling him in like a fetid log.

I hold my breath, step inside the shed, and stand behind the body, trying not to hurl all over his unfinished boat. My hands creep along the back of his chair, and I’m about to yank it out, when I stop and look up at Butcher. His eyes are wide and he’s biting his lip, and I can discern a slight shake to his head. I let go of the chair and step out of the putrid shed again to breathe. “You have a problem?” I ask.

“You were going to yank out the chair,” he says, and I nod. What’s his point? “That’s not a great idea.”

“Then why not just say that? You think I’m an expert at this?”

“I don’t want to interfere with your decisions.”

“That’s not interfering; that’s called  helping. Are you helping me or not?!”

He nods and looks back at the body. “You don’t want him to hit the floor,” he says. “If you ever choose to trust me about anything, now’s the time.”

I squint at him, suspicious of his concern; but I’m inclined to trust a murderer when it comes to bloated corpse removal, so I agree. “Wheelbarrow? Delicacy? Suggestions, please.”

“A tarp,” he says, and that sounds good enough to me. I hold my breath and hurry to the back of the shed. From the doorway I hear him hiss and say, “If you’re looking for the black tarp that was back there, I borrowed that one.”

What the hell does that mean – he borrowed it? Is he stealing shit now? I can’t keep hanging out in this overwhelming cloud of stench, so I leave the shed again, dragging Butcher with me until we’re out in the rain. “What do you need a tarp for?”

“They’re useful, and he doesn’t need it … well, he didn’t an hour ago.”

“And you need it for what?!”

He points back inside the shed. “That is more important to worry about I think.” Honestly, this circus is beginning to wear on my last goddamn nerve. “I saw another tarp on the porch roof,” he says.

After thirty minutes of dangling off the roof, tearing at the shredded tarp in the middle of the pouring rain, we finally get my father hauled out to the gravesite in the darkened woods behind the house.

Butcher, that asshole, lifts up his muddy boot to roll my father into the grave, and I yank him away. “What the fuck are you doing?! Don’t kick him into the hole!”

“What does he care?!” he shouts over the downpour. “He’s a bag of rotten meat covered in flies!”

“Just step back! I’ll do it!” I snap, and I push the coal shovel into his chest. My father deserves more than a boot to the ass; I lift up the tarp and attempt to roll him over.

Something to note about bloated corpses, is that they don’t roll like one would assume. They’re heavy, and dense, and the gas-filled organs shift and leak. It’s horrifying. There’s also a slight slope to the ground that makes it feel like I’m attempting to roll a two-hundred-pound pyramid up a hill.

When the damn body won’t budge, I glance up at Butcher’s smug-ass face to see him not even bothering to suppress his goddamn smirk. “Help me!” I snap, and he raises his foot again. Fuck it all. I stand up, and together we kick the body into the grave. It lands on its belly with a whomp, splashing swamp muck out of the hole like a malodorous geyser.

The rain’s picking up, growing louder as it hits the tarp. Not wanting to draw attention to the noise, I wad it up and toss it onto my father’s back. This is a fucking nightmare.

Butcher’s already slopping mounds of wet dirt on top of the body while I sit like an idiot on the uneven rocky ground. When my ass starts aching, I realize I’m sitting on the goddamn flask, and I pull it out. This was the reason I came here. This was supposed to be my day of reckoning. I was going to settle the score, right my wrongs, and let go of my old life; and now I’m sitting in a rainstorm at the muddy edge of my father’s grave, watching a man I call Butcher poke at a pile of dirt.

“What’s this?!” he calls over the pounding rain, and I toss the flask over my shoulder in exasperation. What the hell is it now? I sit up on my knees and swipe water from my glasses with a muddy finger. His shovel’s flicking at a small pile of bones poking out of the mud.

Oh my god. “Patches?!”

Butcher’s puffing away on his smoke and staring at me like I’m insane. “What the hell was Patches?” he calls.

“My neighbor’s dog!” I cry. “I loved that dog!”

He scoffs and nudges the bones into the soggy grave. “Bye-bye, Patches,” he says.

“Hey! Show some goddamn respect, you asshole!”

“It’s a dog, Hopper – let it go. He can play with your daddy now!”

I rub my muddy hands into my eyes, wishing this day would end already. It's still going, still raining, still eating away at my last–

“Hopper! Get your ass off the ground and finish this! This is your goddamn mess!”

I grit my teeth and stand, grabbing my shovel from the ground, and start hurling clods of dirt into the grave. “What’s your fucking hurry?!”

The red ember from the cigarette between his fingers rises, and he points just over the roof of the house. “Dawn,” he shouts. “That’s all you worry about right now!”

Goddamn it, he’s fucking right. I throw down my shovel and use my arms to shove mountains of dirt into the hole, while he tosses rocks that just thud and bounce off my father’s back.

Eventually, as the rain lets up and twilight turns the air a deep, dark blue, we finish filling the grave. We’re both covered in mud, and Butch is in the shed now, doing whatever the hell he does. I lean my back against a tree, close my eyes, and try to figure out just when the hell my life derailed to bring me to this pitiful moment in time.

I finally open my eyes when something punches me in the chest. Butcher’s rapping the flask against my stab wound, and I snatch it from him, wincing.

“Do what you will, but we need to go,” he says.

This selfish bastard has no respect for anything, least of all the dead. I unscrew the cap, down the remnants of Jack, and hurl the flask into the woods. “Happy?!”

“That I am,” he snickers. “You ready to go?”

“Can’t I say something?! He was my father!”

Butcher waves casually toward the gave, and we both step up to the mountain of mud and sticks slowly being illuminated by the breaking sun.

“I don’t blame you, Dad,” I say, but I stop. This feels embarrassing with Butcher standing over my shoulder. This is too private a matter to have this asshole gawking and laughing at me – relishing my emotional trauma while he remains unfazed by anything even remotely human.

I take a breath and try to focus on what I need to say to let everything go. I had a million words just eight hours ago, and now it doesn’t seem like enough, even though I can’t remember a single one.

I don’t get to apologize. I don’t get to forgive him to his face. I don’t get to ask him about my mom, and I never will. I don’t know if he wanted to talk to me. I don’t know if he was scared in his final moments. I don’t know what straw finally broke him, because he’s gone.

As I slowly exhale, I feel a hand slide up my back and grip my shoulder. I’m paralyzed until his fingers clench and he leans over, nudging my temple with his forehead.

His soaked hair clings to my cheek, and he twists his head against mine to blow smoke over the grave. His warm lips return to me, grazing my cheek until they meet my forehead with a peck. His hand grips my shoulder one last time before he leans away, ashing his smoke on my father’s final resting place. For a man with so much shit to say about everything, he certainly has a way with silence.

“I don’t blame you, Dad ... and I want you to know that,” I continue with a sigh. “I think we both needed forgiveness, and even though you never gave me yours, I want you to have mine.

“I knew you were alive and grieving down here, and knowing that I was the cause of it made me afraid to come home and face it all again. I know that makes me a coward, but that’s what I am. I knew you were alone, and if I came back, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to leave again.”

The rain is merciful and lets me hide my tears in peace, even though my voice betrays me with every crack.

“You raised me to where I could take care of myself. You got me out of the house and on a path that led me away from your pain. You did your best, and I want you to know that I see that now. You took your life where you needed to take it. But I’m going to hope every day that you meant for this to be your final gift to me. Mom gave me her life, Dad, and you gave me your death, and I wanted to thank you for it.”

My freezing wet shirt presses against my back when he moves behind me, hugging me to his chest while I speak. At any other time I might elbow him away, but I can’t seem to find the resolve to finish this alone.

“You broke that grief-stricken tether yourself, because you knew I couldn’t do it,” I say. “I’m sorry this was the only way you felt that could happen. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough for both of us, Dad. And I’m sorry I never got to say good-bye. Give mom a kiss for me.”

Butcher’s mouth presses against my wet shoulder, and I really don’t want to move, so I let the shovel drop to the ground and relax back into him. This is it now; I’m officially alone in this world.

His mouth rubs across my shoulder as we both stare over the grave. I can feel his impatience growing as the sky lightens with every tick of his thoughts. He breathes into my ear, kissing me on the neck, and whispers, “We have to go.”

I know we have to keep moving. All the commotion around my reclusive father’s home is bound to draw suspicion if we don’t get the hell out of here quickly. I’m still a fugitive after all.

“Garm’s wet nose is waiting for you,” he jokes. He knows damn well that I like the dog more than I like him. At least when she bares her teeth, I know how she’s going to attack. This bastard might not go for my throat when the time comes. I have a lot of soft spots, and it feels like he’s already tasted every single one.

“I’m going to grab a few things, then we can go,” I say.

He nods, nuzzling into my neck again, and asks, “So where we headed, Hopper?”

I’m not making any more goddamn decisions. My head’s about to explode as it is. “Anywhere but here, Butch."

“Colorado it is,” he says, then he lets me go.

Colorado? Is he insane? “Screw Colorado, Butch, we aren’t going anywhere near Boulder.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice. We’re out of food. My guy’s it.”

“Fuck Colorado, Butcher. My face is all over the state! We’ll go to a goddamn grocery store for food. That’s what normal people do.”

He shakes his head, and the finality of that is tangible. “You pick where we go, or I do,” he says.

I could’ve said Maine, Seven Devils – hell, getting hijacked on the way to Cuba sounds more tempting than Colorado – but I don’t. I just freeze up trying to think of a state that felt even remotely safe to me.

When my indecision gets the best of me, he says, “Then Marianne decides,” and he pulls a strange gold coin from his pocket.

“What’s that?” I ask, yanking his hand to my face. It’s a twenty-franc gold coin with a woman’s face on one side and rooster on the back. He withdraws his hand and flicks it up, catching it before it hits the ground.

“Mary follows you, and the cock follows me,” he says with a smile. The goddamn dick jokes are getting old. “And we’ll let daddy pick.” His thumb tings against the coin and it flips off his finger, spinning over and over as it arcs away from us and lands in the freshly-turned dirt of my father’s grave.

I don’t want to look at it. I have no idea where to go next; every option feels more hostile than the next. But we cannot go to Colorado; that I’m sure of. Luck’s never been on my side, however, so when Butcher leans over the grave, I do the same.

My face goes slack and he snickers as he looks up at me. “Surprise, surprise,” he says, and I briefly wonder if a shovel to his temple wouldn’t wipe that fucking grin off his face.

Notes:

Whew. Whirlwind. I'm just checking in with my binge readers. You still enjoying it?

My chapter 22 notes.