The Last of Them

by Alexander Helmintoller

 
     I used to think, for no good reason, that I’d die if I fell asleep. Clinging to my sheets, I’d sink into myself under the moonbeams that shone through my window, dappled by the dark elm in the courtyard. I’d whimper, grasping at the world I was about to lose by pleading for my life.
     A godless boy begging to retain normalcy— his parents, his younger sister, even the friends at school whom he hated.
     Yes, I had only ever needed god then.
     It was perhaps at this time in my life that I realized that god did not pickexist, and if he did, that he really had no control over my life. I had decided that I’d die if I slept, and so I figured I could also decide otherwise.
     On those rare nights, I would drift off terrified, elated to wake up the next morning to the usual trumpet of my father imitating a military bugle call.
     But on those nights I had not known…
     The nights I had given myself up for dead…
     The dread that ate away inside me…
     The affliction that I had somehow overlooked…
     Those nights were the longest of my life.
     And perhaps part of me did die early on— made me stronger so that I could endure the knowledge that had begun to wash over me.
     All of this down the hall from my sister, who I assume slept soundly being three years younger than I and not yet cognizant of what I would later come to regard as a fondness of death.

 

***

 

     I watched as motes of dust floated about in the morning light. The skylight overhead gave the loft a muted white glow that accentuated the wood grain of the ceiling beams. Though the sun had warmed my mattress, simple and painted white upon the dark wood floor, the air about me was still cold. Spidery frost etched my window. I turned in my bed to look at the coverless novels that I had stacked neatly against the wall next to my mattress. Immediately to the right, my personal effects were organized according to size and function. Watch, wallet, keys.
     Black slashes on white canvas hung on the wall behind me, and I viewed my creation upside down as I lay there in bed, considering the constructed simplicity of my existence. I had worked gradually to omit the distracting and frivolous. Paintbrushes sat at the foot of my bed in glass jars filled with murky grey water. Crumpled, yellowing paper, spent paint tubes like caterpillars curling up as you mashed them in half with a stick… these things rested beneath the jars, with a new white canvas waiting to be impregnated with color. A bulky black typewriter stood sentinel upon a plain wooden desk. A lonesome stool huddled nearby for warmth. The typewriter had fallen into disrepair. Condensation that sometimes formed on mornings like these had rusted the word-processor’s exoskeletal type bars significantly. To the touch, the metallic ribs would be cold as ice.
     I hadn’t written in weeks, and yet I did not feel unaccomplished. I had thought writing would allow me more time to reflect—to live a self-examined life—but honestly, I felt more at peace with myself living simply and keeping my thoughts confined to my own head. At least there I didn’t have to explain myself if I was somehow discovered. I could float undisturbed in the vague ether of my consciousness.
     Getting out of bed, I scratched the dense stubble on my cheeks. The little hairs disturbed me—always reminded me of cactus needles. The world outside of my blanket was freezing. I could practically see my breath. Pulling on a pair of underwear that sat dejected next to my bed, I walked across the hardwood floor of the loft to the small rectangle of a mirror and decided what type of day this would be. The usual dark circles did not hang underneath my eyes today—no siree. My facial hair looked fine but felt horrible. It was an itch invisible to the outside world. Something so seemingly normal that would go unnoticed until late afternoon when I would begin to scratch my face again, my mood declining.
     My hair was sticking up in various places, and I glanced over at the coat rack to the left of my mirror, searching for my red hunting hat. It wasn’t there. After five minutes of searching through my dresser and throwing all my coats onto the ground, I still couldn’t find it. I sighed. It had probably lost itself. I picked up a coat from the ground—one with a fur hood. It was fake fur, and I was comfortable with that. I settled on jeans, a black t-shirt with a white circle on it, and left my hair to its own devices. Perhaps it’d right itself by the end of the day. It looked like it was snowing outside in any case. I glanced outside my frosted window—snow drifted quietly to the ground like ash from a distant conflagration.
     Descending from the loft with my coat in hand, I smelled the earthen aroma of coffee down the hall. It reminded me of my grandfather. Of the fresh earth that had been dug up and thrown onto his coffin, dark clods breaking and scattering across the fine wood like dropped ice cubes sliding across the kitchen floor. As I entered my kitchen—chrome with all the trimmings—my eyes went to the sink where a large beer bottle rested, drained of its contents (most likely late the night previous unbeknownst to my mother). Yet there it sat, ready for round two, as if my mother had not almost left my father because of his alcoholism. Sometimes I wondered if father was just testing mother to see what he could get away with. Like a child defining its boundaries through disobedience. Except he had everything to lose. But I noticed how mother talked about other men— her friends from high school—artists and moviemakers.
     Walking past the counter in the center of the kitchen, I went to the table and stood over it, viewing the smoldering remains of my father’s breakfasting inventory. A newspaper lay folded upon the circular table, proclaiming politically charged headlines to the uninformed masses and anyone else who might listen. A half-eaten plate of eggs, bacon and toast stared at me morosely, wasted food that spoke of my father’s imperious nature.
     The breakfast that sat upon the table was cold now and the smell of coffee overpowered it, yet I was hungry and the eggs looked damn good. No doubt they had been made by my mother—which would explain why they were sitting out, half eaten. Going to the fridge, I opened the door and scanned its contents for eggs. My father had eaten the last of them. Well, half of the last of them.
     Grabbing some orange juice and milk from the fridge, I closed the door and found a glass from the sink. It looked clean enough but it had a ring of dried something at the bottom of it. It smelled like morning mouth. I rinsed it and then poured half milk, half orange juice into it, sipping gently as I paced the kitchen. The lights were on. Neither of my parents had thought to turn them off. No doubt a conscious decision that would provide a catalyst for future bickering. My parents would both be at their respective workplaces by now, doing “business things,” like “managing employees,” and “circulating quarterly reports,” while fucking their secretaries or some such hedonism.
     I need to get some air, I thought. My mind was running off again. I took a deep breath and was momentarily calmed by my father’s half eaten breakfast. The eggs had begun to emit a faint aroma—the aroma of nostalgia—of warm mornings before school spent with the family. But that had been what now seemed like ages ago. I was out of college, living with my parents while my sister attended a crtprestigious ivy league. Let me tell you something: My sister is a pretty smart girl. The only person I trust really. Hell of a dancer too. But not in a whorish way. In the modest sort of way you might picture your grandparents dancing with each other when they first met at the military ball before the great war or some junk—him with his drab restaurant hat and old-fashioned uniform, her with her dress right out of “I Love Lucy.” I dunno. She’s modest like that.
     Anyway, the eggs had gotten to me, and now that I was thinking about my sister I realized I was pretty hungry so I decided to go to the grocery store to buy some more eggs. I went back up to the loft to grab my watch, wallet, and keys and left the house with my father’s damn breakfast right where it was so that it might be rotten by the time he got back home—just like he wanted. And his goddamn beer bottle and its abuses to the family. At least my sister had escaped for the time being.
     When I opened the door, the biting cold jumped into my coat. Fighting the frost, I buttoned up my coat as I removed a pair of thin cotton gloves from my pockets. The winter air was disturbed by puffs of my breath, and I saw that it had snowed last night—quite a lot even—so that I had to shovel a bit of the white junk off the walkway because my parents had each left through the garage and honestly, I sometimes worried about the façade of my home.
     My father’s beer bottle was still bothering me, jeering at me from the kitchen counter, and seeing as how I hadn’t yet locked the front door, I went inside and grabbed the bottle, putting it in my inside coat pocket and locking the front door once I was in the front yard again.      Maybe I’d find a recycling bin on my walk to the grocery store.
     I set off down the sidewalk through my snowy wintertime suburbia, feeling the glass bottle press against my chest, its rigidity like a little iron lung that would shatter and kill me if I slipped and fell on top of it. Someone could very well accidentally knock me over running by (although there were probably not joggers about in this weather). I had better watch for icy patches on the sidewalk in any case, I thought.
     Seeing as how it was a Monday, (about 9 o’clock in the morning, I guessed) the grocery store was deserted except for a little old black woman in the dairy section who I found looked quite like a lizard. The dark sunspots around her eyes and her slack, reptilian face spoke of a lifelong exposure to sun and heat. She seemed lost in this artificial winterland, with aisles decorated in red and green, little cardboard reindeer galumphing atop the aisles of the grocery store.
     She stood by the cheeses, deliberating between medium and sharp cheddar, her cart nearly full of groceries already. Being as small as she was, I became frustrated with her when I saw that she was going to be carrying all of her groceries herself. She’d probably fall in the parking lot and break something, a milk carton smashing to the pavement and spilling out around her, outlining her body in dairy that would freeze into her green woolen sweater.
     I passed the lady slowly, eyeing her cheeses to see what she was deciding between. Personally, I don’t care for brands, but it was not my decision to make, and as she looked up, some sort of fright lit the woman’s eyes and she dropped the cheese where she stood and scurried around the corner of the aisle. I paused, not breathing, looked up and down the aisle, the refrigeration system humming in the silence (it was so cold outside that they probably could have turned it off without anything spoiling), picked up the cheeses, and walked around the corner to give back to the woman her frightening decision.
     She was about halfway down the next aisle, calmly surveying the packaged meats, and when I turned the corner, her gaze snapped back at me and she scurried around the corner to the next aisle, the front wheel of her shopping cart wobbling as the rest of it grated against the linoleum floor. “Miss! Your chee!…se” I faltered, the cheese turning into orange bricks of shame. I hurled the cheese into the produce section to my left at a mound of apples. Later, I wondered if I could have gotten away with dashing around the corner to punch the old woman in the back. At that moment however, a cashier called over to me.
     “Excuse me, Sir!” I turned to find a middle-aged woman (not particularly ugly, but her job was ugly and she knew it, and so it translated onto her face—or perhaps that was just how she looked in the morning) giving me a dirty look. She wouldn’t stop staring at me, so I went over to the apples and picked up the cheese (and yes I was sorry, and yes I was the guiltiest ass who ever walked the face of the earth), bringing it back to the aisle in which it belonged. I then selected a carton of eggs, made sure to avoid the ugly cashier’s counter, paid for my eggs, and left the store promptly.
     Outside of the store, as I was walking across the parking lot, I slipped on any icy patch of gritty asphalt—I could see it now: A housewife pulling into the lot to pick up arugula or rosemary for her chicken dinner and finding a young man in a puddle of dark crimson, his coat opened up, snow in his hair, bright shards of glass sticking into his abdomen like cherry rock candy.
     I caught my balance before I could crush the eggs or the glass bottle in my coat. Taking a deep breath, I was so startled by the slip that I suddenly remembered my dream from the night previous. Perhaps it was that slip that was so like being shaken out of sleep by the sensation of falling, or perhaps it was the feeling that I was going to die that had reminded me of the dream. The craggy silhouette of mountain peaks had appeared before me. Steadily, a red-orange glow lit the darkling evening. Beyond the mountains, the glow climbed the sky, and at the climax of my misunderstanding, searing globs of magma shot forth from the crags and took the place of the glow. It was heading right for me. The slow pursuit of the lava, falling debris, and ash that fell like snow suffocated my heart, making it beat like a rabbit’s as it did now.
     I smoothed out my coat, patted the glass bottle, and walked onwards towards the edge of the parking lot. When I reached the sidewalk, a car honked down the street as it turned into a gas station—the driver had nearly hit a woman and her little toddler who had wandered into the path of the car. Both parties were attempting to recover from the shock as the honk echoed off the gas station shop and over to the grocery store parking lot. In my mind, the driver had run over the woman and her child, and the horn had been the last sound they had ever heard. I couldn’t prevent the image from entering my thoughts—it was just something that came now. One of many “what ifs” that plagued my mind—stripped it bare of calm and collected emotional sanity, and put me on the edge as if I were running from a constant pursuit of a slow, creeping lava.
     After the scene resolved itself, the driver exited his vehicle, leaving the ignition on, and went to the gas station shop, paid in cash for pump number three please and thank you, bowland walked back outside into the snow. Once at the pump, he withdrew the nozzle and began filling his tank. Checking his watch, the driver kept one hand on the pump, and as he reached into his pocket for a toothpick or some such knickknack, the engine still idling, pistons working up and down, his car exploded in an inferno of heat and light, engulfing the driver’s body in a plume of fire and screaming metal. The gas station shopkeeper rushed outside as a cloud of black smoke rose into the sky, the driver’s skin no doubt as black and charcoaled as oil by now.
     But again, a what if.
     The man finished filling up his gas tank, got into his car, turned it on, and promptly drove away from the gas station, most likely because even in a rich neighborhood, the gas station is the dumpiest place in town, representative of the lower-class, blue-collar worker, of middle America, and of wars that weren’t really wars, because there was no defined enemy.
     The explosion I had seen in my mind prompted me to go over to the gas station for whatever reason—be it thrill or some deeper set psychological issue that governed my life, I knew not. Needless to say, I continued onwards towards the station, and when I arrived, having trudged through sidewalks clogged with snow like the plaqued arteries the man I now spoke to would doubtless be dealing with in five to ten years’ time, I asked the shopkeeper how much a quart of gasoline was or whatever volume it was he sold, because you see, my car had broken down a couple miles away and I was looking to get it back home or my mother would have my head.
     The shopkeeper indicated that I’d need to buy a red “Petrol Polyethylene Transportation Hull,” as gasoline was not sold in little bottles like oil was, he added, tacking on a, “my boy,” to the end of his condescension. Who the fuck was he, calling me boy? I had drudged through years and years of pointless schooling only to be dumped upon the world with a Bachelor’s that amounted to nothing and the luxury of moving back in with my parents. At least my mother had a bad back and my father was disinterested enough in me that I never had to worry about them bothering me in my loft.
     I went ahead and bought his shitty plastic gas canister and had him fill it up (he told me to wait inside, as apparently it was a secret practice reserved only for the highest ranked clerics of the gasoline-selling order). When he returned, he charged me an exorbitant price, but I agreed, my wallet left with only a couple ones and a fiver to populate its pleather vagina.
     Everything was getting real annoying real fast, and the asshole shopkeeper didn’t even wave to me as I left. I lugged the gas canister in my left hand and daintily carried the eggs in my right while plodding through the muddy snow on the sidewalk. I became very aware of my walking as I returned home— I was suddenly engrossed with the physical act of placing one leg in front of the other—my calf muscles tensing, my thigh muscles relaxing, my thigh muscles tensing, my calf muscles relaxing. My legs didn’t know where they were going—they just twitched onwards, walking through the dirty snow, stabilizing me when I slipped and supporting me above the ground. Then I felt like my legs, twitching onwards, righting myself when I slipped– treading water. I didn’t know why I did it or how long I’d have to do it for, but soon enough I was home and unlocking the front door anyway.
     The clock in the entryway read 10:02 a.m., and I thought that was a fine time for breakfast—as fine a time as any other, so I went into the kitchen, put the gas canister on my father’s newspaper, took the eggs out of their plastic grocery bag and found a pan in some cabinets below the sink. Grabbing a clean bowl from the sink, I cracked open a few eggs, saving the whites in the half-shell of each egg I cracked, pouring the yolks into the bowl. I whisked the yolks with a fork that had been sitting out on the counter until they appeared bubbly and orange. Opening up the fridge, I took some butter (still in its paper wrappings) and rubbed it around in the pan, now upon the heated stove. I poured the whisked eggs into the pan, and stirred them with the fork when their undersides turned yellow and fluffed up.
     It was getting hot with my coat on, but I needed the beer bottle now anyway,tom so I took off my coat and threw it on the counter in the middle of the kitchen as I withdrew the brown glass bottle. Moving to the counter, I stirred my eggs a bit, lowering the heat, and then poured the leftover egg whites into the beer bottle. I took a plate out of a cabinet above the stove and served my eggs with a dash of salt and pepper. Taking my breakfast to the kitchen table with my bottle of whites, I sat down at my father’s chair and began to eat. After I had finished the yolks, I took the cap off of the gasoline canister and carefully poured the refined petroleum into the beer bottle until it was about three quarters full. I thumbed the bottle shut and shook it violently up and down, like a malicious kid might do to an unsuspecting friend’s soda.
     Getting up to put my dish in the sink, I walked to a drawer by the fridge and found some duct tape. I tossed it to the kitchen table, and it knocked my father’s breakfast plate of half finished eggs, toast, and bacon, and rolled to the floor. I stepped out of the kitchen into the entryway, where I climbed the stairs that led up to my sister’s and my old room (which was now used as a home office). Tentatively, I pushed open the door to Allie’s room, half expecting a trap to spring—perhaps she had a loaded spring-activated shotgun on the other side of the door that would be set off by intruders.
     I was inside, unharmed, but I felt her presence in everything from the bed with its white twisting frame and cold metal roses that bloomed from its headboard, to the ballet shoes that hung above it. It was as if I’d seen her yesterday. As if I could just go to sleep and see her again, separated by time and space, as if I could return to one of those seemingly endless afternoons—the ones that forever appear upon your countenance as sweet pain when you think of a first love or golden age long past.
     Moving to the bathroom that I had shared with my sister years ago, I opened the door and saw myself in the dark of the large mirror above two little white sinks. My hair looked the same as it had when I had woken up, but the circles were there, under my eyes somehow. I missed the light of my loft—here, in the shadow of the present, I stared deep into my own eyes. I felt I had been left behind—that I could not keep up if I tried. That I had been abandoned, and that the future held more of the same. I wondered if anything in that shadow—the shadow of the past—could survive.
     I turned on the bathroom light, the blinding off-white revealing the water stains on the metal faucets, the mildew that somehow grew in the shower despite its neglect (my mind wandered again to my parents, specifically to my father’s empty beer bottle (how many had he really had?) which now sat downstairs on the kitchen table, filled with egg whites (for adhesion) and gasoline (for ignition).
     I now searched the mirrored cabinet on Allie’s side of the bathroom, finding a clear plastic bottle I had seen her place there so many times before. Grabbing it, I walked through my old room, noting the holes in the walls where my old posters had been—the sun-bleached floor and dark sdfrectangle where my bed had been (since then, the frame had been sold at a garage sale and I had taken my mattress up to the loft). Bored with the minimal change that a place no longer mine could affect me with,      I went back to the kitchen and sat down at the table.
     I grabbed the duct tape off the floor and put it on the table next to the beer bottle. Bending down to take off one of my shoes, I removed a sock and shoved it in the top of the bottle as tightly and as fully as I could. I put my shoe back on, my pale, sockless ankle peering out at me from beneath my pant leg. I then wrapped the base of the sock with duct tape so that it would hold, opening the bottle of nail polish remover and drizzling it over the sock like I was making some sort of goddamn snow cone.
     I had had just about enough.
     Was I diseased?
     Afflicted with some invisible parasite that ate away at my insides?
     I had been defeated by a faceless adversary that I could not combat.
     I felt that I had wasted my life and that the only promise of the future was uncertainty.
     So I would destroy and escape.
     For once I would be the volcano.
     The fires of change and the molten lava that crawled after the somnambulant.

 
Alexander Helmintoller sometimes takes naps in the fort made of miniature cheese cubes and toothpicks in his backyard.