That was the day I died. The sky was haunted with the refuse of jet planes. The summer breeze was withering and I could almost feel the pale breath of frost on the wind, much too early for a late August evening. I smothered my hands in my armpits. And still, my pores puckered each time the blackened bows of the trees rustled with the refrigerated air. Squinting above me, as if by straining my eyes, half blocked by thick black lashes, I could see the first dusky stars, my eyes searched for where I knew Venus to be, uncaring of the lazy and familiar path. I think I saw it.
The hum of the woods had not settled down just yet. Birds stuffed themselves, hidden, amidst latticed branches and spider web foliage and even the people, holed up in their lakeside cottages below could be heard faintly. They were the sounds of screeching tires. They were the taste of distant laughter. A few screaming pixie children yipped and skipped far off in the distance, and I knew if I had half a mind to, I could climb a tree and maybe catch their bobbing silhouettes bouncing along the pier in the setting sun.
The ridge-line was not far from the grove. I don’t know why Dastan named it that. Far from a grove, it was a half moon of tall Cyprus trees. We had no idea who had planted them there, nor who took care of them, but they sprouted tall and clean and we had claimed that spot as ours. What was most special about the grove was the view: It sat, cloistered along a cliff face. It was near enough to the winding trail that leads to the observatory that, as children, my parents would let Dastan and I go up there on our own. It helped that they believed we would spend our evenings inside the great astrolabe at the zenith of the hill. In a way we weren’t lying. We did, indeed, watch the stars and pick out pinprick constellations and roll the names of stars off our tongues, watching the heavens dim and the stars flare.
Bellatrix. Andromeda. Dabih. Achernar. Cor Hydrae: I loved the sounds of these as they rolled from my tongue. To annoy me, Dastan would memorize the translated names: “Zozma” became “Loincloth” or worse, he would call them numerically. 27 Tauri. HR 2948.
That night, I walked alone up the path, the beers I had in my canvas backpack clinking as I climbed over protrusions of rock that had been exhumed by the rains earlier in the season. By the time the metal husk of the observatory loomed in the distance, I the plateau near the grove. A cool sweat had misted on my back, and my limp camisole clung to my skin. The trek had warmed me some, but as soon as I stopped, I would be cold again. As I approached the trees, yellow lights started blinking on and off. The fireflies were awakening, and soon the entire grove would be filled with their heat, and an Aeolian hum of unexhausted mating would energize this small world.
When I came upon the trees, I forced my way through, leaving behind me a den of holy vice flashing its neon lights in sparkling brilliance. Sitting down, I opened my bag and popped the cap from one of the two beers. The walls of my mouth were parched, and there was no sense in waiting. I got through maybe half the bottle in one go. The hoppy thickness and bitter taste did little to quench my thirst, and my teeth scraped the thick residue from my tongue. My throat was coated but, if anything, the drink had made my thirst greater. Dastan would get here soon, and he always carried a weighty water bottle of red plastic on him at all times.
The beer and the walk had made me tired and, involuntarily, my eyelids slumped. In spite of the view I found myself forcing each lid, one after the other, to blink wide-awake. Suppressing a yawn, I lay back against the rough tree trunk, clutching my drink in my lap. It was just so relaxing up here, away from my opinionated mother, who, despite watching hours and hours of television never seemed to lack for a project to get me involved in, or from my father who had a habit of guilting me into singing for him when he pulled his guitar out in the evenings. It was especially nice to be free from my brothers, who’s tone deaf choruses clashed dissonantly with my fathers flat singing as well as his flawless guitar picks. I would only close my eyes until Dastan came. Then we would lie on our backs, knees dangling over the cliff face, hidden from the path by the trees and the distracting sparkle of fireflies.
“What are you doing you idiot?”
My eyes didn’t open right away but I knew something was off. This voice was not one I recognized, although at first hearing, my mind had immediately jumped to Dastan. But this gruff sound was well aged, speaking in sandpaper tones and accompanied by an answering voice.
“If you don’t wanna come down and get your pretty little wingtips in this filth, then shut the fuck up, would ya, Mic?”
“Hey, your mess. You cover it up. How much did he even owe you?”
“Kid was up one-k in the all American. Damn punk was all lit up when I found him, too.”
“What did you expect?”
I hadn’t moved an inch but I was wide-awake now. The sky was wrong. Scorpio had traversed along the edge of my vision and the sky’s inky blackness was perforated only by pinpricks. The moon had already set, and going through my moon chart in my mind, I calculated that it was at least after 1am. Where was Dastan?
“I expected the son of a bitch to pay up. He knew I’d been on him. Sent him a warning two weeks ago. When the punk didn’t think I was serious I put a brick through his window.”
“And a bullet through his brain? Trap, did you think, you big oaf? How the fuck are you getting the cash now??
Trap grunted and a sound thumped through the ground. It was only then that I realized that since I had woken up the knotty sounds of the earth being ripped apart had created a rhythmic beat. As quietly as I could, I shifted myself so that if I tilted my head back I could see the shadows of the men.
From my vantage, they clung to the earth upside down, Mic, the shorter of the two, standing, arms folded at the edge of a growing pit a flashlight in one hand and something I couldn’t make out in the other. The grove, now barren of lightening bugs, lay motionless and deaf in the umbra; the only sound the thump of the shovel slicing into rocky soil. Trap’s body seemed cut off at the knees, and although he was built in thicker lines than Mic, he struggled to lift each shovel-full of dirt. His hands trembled in the dark, and when the light hit his face for a moment, his eyes were wide with frenetic intensity.
“Get that light out of my face!”
It was only then that I noticed the flash of T-shirt. Only when Mic’s flashlight swept over the ground that I saw the inert, broken figure lying on the ground. I knew that T-shirt, white with the Aperture Science logo, and from the ephemeral glimpse the flashlight beam gave, calico crimson splotches where I had never seen any.
If I gasped audibly, the two men, intent on widening their sepulchral hole, never noticed. I stared at the sky, unable to keep watching. I wanted to be anywhere else, somewhere I could inhale sharply and pant and tense each muscle and scream. My fingernails wound around the grass shards at my sides, clenching them into a matted carpet. Inhaling on a count of four, I stopped, held my breath, and released.
But on the digging went. The two men bickered as if they were doing nothing more than arguing over the Sox or the Yankees and sometimes Mic even had the audacity to chuckle. I was petrified wood, anchored to the ground, unmoving by the will of gravity and nothing more. Increment by increment I rolled myself over, keeping on my hands and knees. I became a soldier, crawling arm over leg under a barrier of barbwire tree limbs. I edged around the tree I had been hidden behind, gaging their response to the rustling I was creating at all times. They seemed to take no notice so I quickened my pace.
The tinkling sound of the beer bottle, still inside my bag, was not very loud, as one of the straps hooked itself around my foot and was dragged over the shale it had rested upon. Immediately the searchlight bolted in my direction and I found myself blinded by the beam in Mic’s hand. I heard a thump as Tramp tripped over the edge of the hole as he scrambled over to Mic, but I ignored him and tried to camouflage myself in with the dense foliage. It was impossible to tell if they had seen me; their bodies stood silhouetted behind the sunspot of flashlight and, although their bodies never moved, they also had not come straight for me.
Trap’s voice quivered. “Mic- Mic- MIC!”
“Shush- I’m trying to hear.”
“Give it to me, Mic! Give me my piece back!”
Mic said nothing but took a few tentative steps towards where I was hiding. Next to the flashlight his other hand was holding something I couldn’t place at first.
“Come on, man,” Trap said, clutching the wooden shaft of the shovel closer to his chest. “Its probably just a woodchuck or raccoon or something”
“What if its not?” Mic asked. He moved his hand and a funny clicking sound emanated from the object in it. My breathing stopped and it felt like my veins shut down circulation. A chilled horror swept through my chest. Mic cocked the gun in his hand again.
Had the watch on my wrist not been drowned earlier that day, the ticking hands would have measured time slowing down in front of us. Each breath I drew was ice.
Mic took a step closer.
“Dude, it could be a bobcat or cougar or something! Leave it alone”
Mic was close enough that I could make out the basic features of his face: a long slender nose with a neck to match, wide spaced sunken eye sockets and a scruffy dark haired face. Some of the light was bouncing back upon him and his skin appeared to be spotted and sunburnt. His face was hard now but neither angular nor entirely rounded in shape.
“Still, best to find out”
Mic pulled the trigger and there was a deafening sound.
©2014 Lex Vex