It was just past sundown when the coyotes began to sing.
This was a regular occurrence, but Keith was usually indoors when the howling started and the thin walls of his shack made it easier to tune out the sound. Out here, with only his bike and the violet hues of the fading sunset to keep him company, he heard the sound clearly. It was one coyote, singular, and Keith imagined he could hear loneliness lacing the coyote’s call. Part of him ached in solidarity, but the rougher side of him that had built up like a callus since leaving the Garrison told him to stop imagining things. It was just a wild animal; it’s not like they felt as humans did.
(Once upon a time, a younger, fearful Keith had pointed out the chorus to his father.
“They’re singing,” he replied. “They pour their hearts out into song for the other coyotes to hear, just like we do.”
Of course, that was just a fantasy to amuse a scared child. There was no song in the desert.)
With a sigh, Keith started up his bike and began the trek home. He spent far too long out in the desert, following that insistent tug towards something . It was harder to ignore at night, when there was nothing to distract him from his thoughts, but he had to try to return to life for a bit. Eat, sleep, maybe bathe the desert dust away. Sometimes there was little else he would rather do, but he had to make the attempt regardless.
He heard nothing over the whir of the bike’s engine as he traveled across the darkening desert, but the second he reached his little shack and cut the engine, the coyote’s howling returned. Keith was struck by the sheer loneliness of the sound. Where was its pack? Coyotes were social creatures; it shouldn’t be alone in the darkness, especially for so long. It had a family to go back to, unlike him – so why didn’t it?
By now, the moon had risen, and he could see the low hill a few feet away where his childhood home had once stood. He usually ignored it; in the daylight, it was easier to pretend it was just another part of the desert landscape. Now, with the coyote’s call echoing in his ears, harmonizing with the crackling of flames in his memory, it stood out in stark contrast from everything else around him. That was his life right there. There was nothing left that wasn’t buried and forgotten by the rest of the world.
As usual, dinner was a quiet affair. Keith escaped to the desert to find quiet and peace, and usually his surroundings delivered. He sat in silence, the sounds of utensils scraping the bottoms of pots and the hiss of the gas stove his only company. Sometimes, his brain would supply an accompaniment but it was easily tuned out if he shifted his focus to the energy that tugged at him day and night.
Tonight, he couldn’t escape the chaos of his mind. The coyote in the distance had probably stopped by now, but he could still hear it dimly in the back of his mind. It was overlaid by a fury of other sounds: roaring flames, a child screaming for his father, the roar of a rocket’s engines, the news blaring PILOT ERROR day and night, countless voices from his past telling him why do you bother and nobody cares about you and you could’ve been great , if only .
He couldn’t take it anymore. With a gasp, he slammed his spatula down on the counter and dashed for the corner of the living room. Somewhere, in that corner full of banished relics, he had one of his father’s old radios. It wasn’t the one he’d pulled out on his first day in the desert to listen to deep space noise. This was just a normal radio, one he remembered as a permanent fixture in his old home’s kitchen. His father would play music at night when he’d make dinner and he and Keith would sing along. It never failed to cheer up younger Keith, which was why older Keith had refused to touch it until now. The noise in his head had reached a deafening peak, however; he was at the point where he’d rather drown in bittersweet memories than let his present tear him apart.
Once he’d found the radio and plugged it in, he felt a brief surge of panic at the thought that it didn’t even work anymore. It’d been sitting in this shack, abandoned to the desert, for years now, and it wasn’t as if Keith had tried to protect it from further wear since moving in. What was he going to do now without the music? He needed sound, something from outside the chaos of his mind to distract him, but his only option was –
Static filled the room. Keith fiddled with the tuning knob and gradually, he began to make out a voice.
… and the daylight grew heavy with thunder, and the smell of the rain on the wind …
(For a moment, it felt like Keith was eight years old again, sitting with his father in the kitchen. He was upset for some long-forgotten reason, and he was pouting down at the table. With a cheerful grin, his father turned to set a plate of turkey and gravy in front of him.
“ Here comes that rainbow again,” he sang. “Eat up, now.”
“M’not hungry,” Keith mumbled.
“You sure? It’d be a shame to let this get cold…”)
With a start, Keith realized he’d started crying. He wiped the tears streaming down his face with the back of his hand but otherwise didn’t move, listening to the rest of the song in silence.
This was a mistake. He’d known from the start that coming back here would end badly, but so far he’d managed to keep the memories buried deep within him. It was easy to forget that long-ago life of happiness if he spent his entire day out in the desert, pursuing the energy that called to him, and steadfastly ignored the pile of his father’s belongings in the corner whenever he had to be at home. This radio brought it all back to the surface and it was too much, far too much, when taken in combination with every other loss that wounded his heart.
He continued to sit on the floor in front of the radio, crying silently as more songs from his childhood filled the stillness of the shack. Eventually, the smell of burning reached him and snapped him out of his stupor. With a curse, Keith scrambled back to his feet and returned to the kitchen, where his beans had indeed begun to char and burn. He took the pot off of the heat and luckily for him he had a decent amount of food left that he could salvage.
When he sat down on the couch, plate of food in hand, he realized the radio was still on.
… I’m sorry that I never knew the way to show my love for you
I took too much for granted all the time...
Was it worth leaving it on? He wanted to reject the memories that continued to well up inside of him, despite his best attempts to stifle them, but the part of him that still ached for the loss of his father wanted to cling to this remnant of him. It was selfish. It was illogical.
Despite everything, he felt a bit better.