I know you need me, but I am beyond apologies.
I write this leter at the Laughing Gull. Ezra sits next to me, tapping his fingers on the table. Tap tap tap.
The boat pulls in. The woman captain is dressed in her best blood. “Why is she like that?” I think to myself. Or maybe I say it out loud, because Ezra answers.
“Who knows what g—got her to that point. A bill—billion little things. That’s like me asking you wh—why you look the way you do.”
“Why do I what? Look like this? This is who I am. Or who I’ve become. I’ve looked better.”
“Ah. And this is the best she’s l—looked so far. Like she’s dressed for a wedding. Don’t you think she looks lovely in h—her wedding clothes?
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, but she looks just rough enough to get me where I need to go.”
“I’m coming.” My heart pounds as I say the words. “I’ve just got to mail a letter.”
“Even so, come quickly,” says Ezra.
I will finish this line, stuff this note in an envelope and hand it to Sung-Hee. I’ve gotta run, Trevor.
It’s strange, but I miss this town, even as I sit in it.
I think of it as passed. Or past. I feel like I’m sitting in something that has come and gone, like a time traveler who is just here to document a completed event.
Maybe that’s the right word. Completed.
Can I thank you for your act of taking on my burden? I don’t think so, Trevor. Not in words, anyway. Certainly not in these words, which feel like smoke trailings behind a plane. I have no confidence in their ability to communicate my real feelings. By the time the envelope arrives in your box, you’ll find only the damp evidence of steam.
Perhaps I could howl for you, but I don’t know how to spell the sound I would make. Let me just say that I feel primitive. Wild. I want to bite something. Ha!
The hairs on my arm are tingly. When I brush alongside my doorway, my side tingles for a full five seconds. I can feel the rough boards through the souls of my shoes. I can stand on my porch and smell the salt shore, smell Sung-Hee’s fish and coffee, even Sung-Hee’s own sour sweat.
I want that boat to come in, Trevor. I bet I’ll smell its iron odor when it’s five miles out.
I picked up all your letters from my table with the thought of rereading them, but I found I wanted nothing to do with the words. I only wanted the feel of the paper on my skin. I rubbed them on my rough, unshaven face and I could smell the oil of your fingers. The oil smells like my own self. I can smell my blood in your blood.
I want to grow a beard. Is that silly? I’m done with haircuts, too.
Do I worry about the burden you now bear for me? I don’t. I can’t. My brain has gone native within my skull.
I’m sitting here at the Laughing Gull. Sung-Hee keeps coming to my table to try to drip a few more drops of her coffee into my overflowing cup. She’s trying to read over my shoulder. I take a small amount of joy trying to secretly block her view.
It’s ghostly quiet in the restaurant today. In the whole town. The waves are quiet. The fog is thick. The residents are sequestered in their shacks. “It’s that damn boat,” whispered Sung-Hee. Everyone whispers on these days. “I wish it would hurry up and come so I could get a few more customers in here.”
Ezra left a few minutes ago after another one of his unsettling conversations. More about forgiveness. When he was signing for our meal, he said, “You’re so inconsistent. Y—you’re more than happy to let me pick up the tab for your fish and coffee.”
“You offered. And you’re the one who invited me to lunch. I was fine in my cabin.”
“Yes, b—but you accepted. Now you need to let someone else pay the price for you.” He left in the middle of the riddle. I assume he’s talking about your offer, Trevor, even though I don’t remember mentioning it to him.
I don’t much like your offer. I liked our earlier bargain better. I took on your fear of Mudgett, then you got a bloody nose. I could handle that more easily. Bring on a little blood. That’s something I could deal with.
If Ezra stays true to his word and leaves on the next boat, I will miss him greatly.
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“People think that forgiveness is a gentle act. There’s nothing gentle about it. At times it’s been the most bloody, violent act in the history of the world.” That’s what Ezra told me. That’s what it would feel like to me, Trevor, to let you take this on for me. To have my blood on your hands. On your back.
I can’t ask that of you. Of anyone. I have no right.
Ezra disagrees. Of course, Ezra is a bit of a nut. I verified this fact with Gordon. “De omni re scibili et quibusdam aliis,” Gordon said.
“Which means what.”
“It means he’s a bloody know-it-all, even about things of which he has no right of holding expertise. He’s annoying.”
“I don’t know. I kind of like him.”
“You would. You’re always seeking for something different. Something more. You should be like me.”
“Meaning I have decided I am quite comfortable here.”
“Oh, you are not. You do nothing but complain about this place.”
“Perhaps. But perhaps I like complaining. Perhaps it is the very act of complaining that gives me comfort. Perhaps it is the sheer mediocrity of this locale that makes it so right for me.”
“You may have something there.” I left. I went back to my cabin and took my IOU out to reread it. Then I put it back.
You don’t owe me this much.
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I hope the teachers don’t hate you, too. They shouldn’t, even though you’ve challenged them to take a pretty big joke. And as far as your mom goes, give her a little time. Her sense of humor is bound to shine through eventually.
Ezra invited me to lunch at The Laughing Gull today. I laughed at the invitation. “Have you eaten there yet?”
“Oh, I—I’ve had worse. Y—you should try the food in a logging camp before y—you start complaining. And the c—coffee’s pretty good.” I couldn’t tell if Ezra was joking or not about the coffee. I followed him down and we took a seat closest to the dock. He stared out the window as if there was something to look at other than fog. I asked him what he was looking for.
“The boat, of course. She’s c—coming back soon. And when she does, I’m going with her. I w—want you to know that.”
I smirked. “If you say so, but I’ve never seen anyone get on that boat other than those that get right on the first day. Those of us who wait never go aboard.”
“I’m getting on. I only stopped here to t—talk to you for a few days. Didn’t you know that? That’s why I’ve been looking for you.”
That got my attention. I asked him what he was supposed to talk to me about. He said he’d know when I told him my story. So I told him. Everything. I think I talked longer than I’ve ever talked in my life. When I got to the end—I mean the very end—up to the minute I was talking to him right there—he laughed. “No w-wonder you’re still here. You can’t take any of that with you.”
“With me where?”
“Onward, of course. But y—you’ve got to leave all that behind.”
“How do I do that?”
“Quickly, that’s how. Because she’s c—coming back soon.”
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I can’t believe you did it. I mean, I believe that you did it, but what you did was an unbelievable act. Smart? Stupid? Mean? Irresponsible? I don’t know. But bold as all hell, boy.
I hope you don’t get in trouble on my account. “On my account.” A strange set of words, don’t you think? But so true, here. I feel like I’m spending heavily and counting on you to cover the cost. More of my vampiristic nature.
That said, it worked to a reasonable degree. If your story didn’t take my mind off my plight, it at least provided a little entertainment. Perhaps that’s the best I can hope for. And now I get to sit in suspense, waiting to hear what happened to you. That suspense is a gift of great distraction.
I’ve had another distraction as well. That newcomer to town that Sung-Hee and Dr. Jones gossiped about came to call on me. I was lying in my bunk when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to this man I’d never seen before.
“Can—can I borrow a cup of sugar?” he said.
“Sugar? You’re joking, surely.”
“I am. Can—can—can I come in?” I stood back and let him enter. He’s of medium height, about my age, I suppose, but gone much softer than me. His hair is black—or perhaps very dark brown—and, oh, windswept I suppose is an acceptable way to describe it. A scruffy beard doesn’t quite succeed in giving shape to his great double chin. He wears a dark blue suit, but not well. No tie. The suit somehow manages to make him look slobby. He’d likely be better served by a flannel shirt and a pair of work pants. I can imagine him wiping grease off his hands after emerging happily from underneath a car.
“I—I’ve been looking for you,” he said. He couldn’t seem to get a sentence off without stuttering.. “Name’s Ezra. Ezra Ledford. Hear you—you’ve been looking for me as well.”
We sat then and swapped our stories. Ezra came to town a few weeks ago. He’d recently retired as a high school teacher and was working abroad, teaching English in Hong Kong. One day he was lunching on fish at his favorite local restaurant when a bone stuck in his throat. “Next thing I knew, I was stepping off a plane into this place,” he said. “But it’s not so b—bad. Been in worse. T—taught school at a logging camp that was nothing but m—mud. Least it’s not cold here. I hate b—being cold. Why’ve you been looking for me?”
I told him I had no real agenda, other than searching for a way to keep busy.
“I encourage you to get one,” Ezra said.
Trevor, I like this guy. He’s interesting. Not sure why he’s interested in me. Not sure if he’ll remain so. But for now, I like him.
Let me know what happens with the cookies.
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Don’t get into trouble for me. Especially for this. I don’t want any more shame piled on.
Thanks for telling about your mom missing me. I’m not sure if it helps.
A few months ago, when your trouble with Mudgett was making you vomit, you told me how your mom would make you feel worse when she’d baby you and call you her “poor dear.” That’s what Ev’s quick forgiveness felt like to me. It made the shame that much harder to bear.
I kind of longed for her to scream at me. To hit me. To scratch my face and leave a horrible scar that I’d have to bear. Take a baby’s weight of flesh out of my backside. But Ev has never worked that way. She’ll take the sins of the world on herself to avoid causing anyone pain.
Trevor, tread carefully around the cookie business. Cookies can be dangerous. Get a teacher sick and you could torch your school career. A vengeful teacher can make a kid pretty miserable.
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If I were to talk about this to your mother, what would I say? She knows what happened. She knows I was there, in charge, when the future of our baby girl was eliminated, when your mother’s own joy stopped breathing.
It’s strange how quiet tragedy can happen in real life.
If I could have fought and lost, it would be so much easier to bear. If I’d been bloody and battered, laying half dead next to the all dead baby body, it would have been easy for Ev to forgive me.
I’m wallowing. I know it.
I thought this purgatory—if that’s what you call this place—would slowly scrape this burden off of me. But I took it with me into the woods and packed the whole thing back out again. Now I sit with it on my front porch. Maybe it’s like my hunch. Is that what you call it? My lump? I mean, if I were a hunchback, my deformity would be this lump of shame. I’ll take it with me everywhere. It will burn along with the rest of my bones in hell. Maybe it will make heaven a bitter place for me forever.
I can’t imagine going to heaven, being surrounded by perfect people, and still walking around, hunched over with this crap on my back.
Trevor, distract me. Tell me about the cookie contest. Shock me. Do something irresponsible to slap me out of this hangover.
I remember when Keith was little and he’d bang his head on the kitchen counter. He’d whimper about his injury. Steffan would walk up to Keith and gleefully stomp on his foot. Keith would howl with pain and grab his smashed toes. Between sobs, he’d say, “Whadja do that for?”
“You should thank me,” Steffan would say. “Now your head doesn’t hurt.”
That’s what I need, Trevor. I need a pain so great that it will make my head stop hurting.
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Sorry it’s taken me a few days to respond to you. No excuses worth noting here other than it’s taken me that long to find the gumption to finish this story.
Back on that day, the next fifteen minutes were the most mind-bending of my life. Ev walked upstairs, still angry with me. I could hear what sounded like your mother crying in the distance and I thought, “What could she possibly be crying about now? All I did was watch a football game.” Then I heard her voice, still soft from upstairs, but broken with sobs, telling me to call 911.
I knew right then. At least that’s where my imagination went. I imagined the worst–that our little Meredith had stopped breathing. I picked up a cordless phone and dialed. The operator came on and asked my emergency and I told her just that–that our baby had stopped breathing. She calmly said an ambulance was on the way and asked me to describe what had happened. I said I didn’t know. Then I ran upstairs.
Ev was trying to breathe life back into that tiny baby. The baby wouldn’t have it.
I was glad for the operator on the phone. I needed someone to talk to other than Ev. I laid out the scene for her until the paramedics took over our house. From that point on, things got really technical. Death got covered in equipment. Bulbs and tubes and monitors. It seemed more official that way.
Your mom cried for days. Weeks. I don’t know if I ever did.
We had a funeral. The saddest of sad days.
We went on to fill our house with four more kids. You included. That stopped the crying pretty well. Nothing takes your mind off a dead child like a house full of chaotic joy.
Then I died. And here I am. It all makes a kind of sense. I fixed the problem by replacing Meredith four times over. I paid my debt in a sense. Now I’m serving my time. Least that’s how I see it.
If your mom had asked to have 10 more kids, I would have said yes. I would have said yes to almost anything.
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I’ve been thinking about that IOU. I even wrote it out, so that you’d take me seriously when I asked to cash it in. It’s sitting right here in front of me now. I have other plans for it. But I do appreciate your offer, you persistent little punk. And now you’re threatening me, too. You pulled the mom card. It’s enough, Trevor. Enough to even push my way to a bit of a beginning about this story.
So here goes:
You guessed that it happened 19 years ago. You were close. If you are 13 now, then it was almost exactly 20 years. I’ve been dead for eight of those. Part of me has been dead the full two decades.
It was a Sunday. About 10 a.m. One of those spring days when it was sunny one minute and then rainy the next. Your mom put Meredith down for a nap in the upstairs bedroom—the one Rhonda must be using now. Ev told me to check on the baby in an hour and not let her sleep too long. Then she took Steffan with her to church. I was home alone with Meredith.
She was six months old at the time. I got to know that baby pretty well in half a year, because that was her entire life. With babies, the soul is all smells and burps and velvety skin. Meredith’s soul smelled like soap. She had your Mom’s unpredictable eyes. Green one day and brown the next depending on the weather and the color of her onesy. She had Ev’s disposition as well—out to make everyone happy all the time. Quiet and happy. Ready to smile at even the hint of a peekaboo. Ev would stare at her and say, “I’d rather watch you than TV any day.”
That morning, Meredith was asleep. I sat down in front of the television and started watching an East Coast football game. Philadelphia Eagles vs. the Washington Redskins. I didn’t care about either team, but football was my Sunday morning routine and I am a man of habit. Still am. As I recall, the Redskins made a rout of it and it was a lousy game to watch. No matter. I watched anyway.
Two hours later, your mom came home. I can still hear her church heels on the front porch steps, still hear her hello as she opened the door. “Where’s my baby?” she asked happily, looking around the living room.
That’s when I realized I’d left Meredith upstairs the entire time without checking on her. A slight infraction, right? The slightest imaginable. I mumbled something about her still being asleep. Ev instantly got mad at me. “Have you even checked on her?”
“Do you even know if she’s OK?”
“She’s a baby,” I said, joking. “How much trouble can she get into?”
That joke. If I could take one thing back in my life, it would be that joke.
I’m stopping right there, Trevor. If I could find a liquor store up in this town, I’d drink myself all the way to oblivion, then drink a few more miles, just to be sure.
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You are getting on my nerves. I wish you would shut up about this topic. I wish you would leave me the hell alone.
I can’t do it. I can’t open my mouth about this one.
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I don’t feel like I have a right to tell this story. Just the act of telling it will be one more thing that needs to be forgiven.
I don’t know how to start.
I am the villain in this tale. No. Villain is more appealing than my role. My crime was less active but no less unforgiveable.
Can we avoid it for another few days? Can I talk about your math test? About how proud I am of you? About how I hope your Mom lets you take taekwondo lessons? Believe me, I’m in no position to ask her for anything, although I’ve asked her for so much throughout my life.
That’s all I’ve got for you today, Trevor.
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Not feeling much like writing today. Give me a day or so to figure out how to do this. I may need to learn a new language, because the one I’ve got doesn’t seem to have the right words.
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By the time you get this letter, you’ll be back from your canoe trip. Can I wish you luck—or pray for your safety—in the past? I think so. I pray that you were safe on Saturday and that you made it back to your mother alive and well. Bruised, maybe, but not broken.
Not all my children have fared so well, Trevor. Ahh.
I’m on the hunt for the stranger in town. Sung-Hee and Dr. Jones both claim to have seen him, but both describe him completely differently, so I doubt their stories. Dr. Jones says the man appeared to be “short, bald and studious.” Not sure what studious looks like. Jones said he wore a rumpled, dark blue suit and appeared lost in thought. He said he saw him down among the sound end of the cabins, but no one who lives down in that part of town seems to have spotted the man.
Sung-Hee said the man had a full head of hair and a prominent beard. “You should see the beard on this guy,” she said. “He put some years into that thing. He’d never be able to work in a restaurant with hair like that.”
Sung-Hee claims to have seen him on the dock. I looked, but saw no sign. At least it’s nice to have something to look for, Trevor. It keeps my mind off the letter I know I need to write you.
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I’m not sure what advice to give you about the cookie contest. All year, I’ve been telling you to do. Kiss the girl. Fight the boy. Go back to school. Play in the game. Now what? Hold back?
I wish your motivation wasn’t revenge, because I’m pretty sure that one will leave a bad taste–like one too many donuts.
Then again, one too many donuts sounds pretty good right now.
What are you thinking? Making horrible tasting cookies? Poisoning Mr. Schick? Don’t do anything stupid.
I don’t know what you can do to help me with my burden of shame. Nothing, I expect. But I could be wrong. I’ll keep thinking about it as much as I can stand to.
Sung-Hee told me a strange bit of gossip. Supposedly, there’s another newcomer in town, but no one has met him. The well-dressed black man–whose name I still don’t know–confirmed it. I asked Gordon if he wanted to go door-to-door with me to search out this mystery man, but he said he was contemplating a particularly interesting fog bank and didn’t want to move from his porch. I went by myself, up and down the entire line of cabins and shacks, but found no one I hadn’t seen before.
I’d love a little new company. A little new something. Maybe tomorrow.
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O O O O. I don’t know how to tell you about my shame. I’ve been carrying it around so long in silence, I don’t know how to give a voice to it. I honestly don’t know if I can tell you.
I think if I sat in my shack with the door barred and tried to just say it out loud to the board and batten walls, I would fail. The thought of actually writing it down to paper where you could read it seems impossible.
I’ll try, Trevor. Or I’ll try to try. For now, I’ll tell you that it’s about my family. About our family.
Trevor, give me time.
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Is it wrong to want revenge on Mr. Schick? Yes, it probably is. Does Mr. Schick deserve to have some kind of justice meted out on him? Yes, he probably does.
But we all do. I’m getting my—what should I call it? Punishment? Comeuppance? Whatever you call it, I’m getting mine right now.
When I was about eight years old, I tried to steal a piece of ribbon candy out of my mom’s candy jar. The candy was all stuck together and when I pulled on a piece, I lifted the whole jar off the dining room table. It crashed to the ground and shattered in a million pieces. Mom—your grandma—was in the backyard, so I grabbed a broom, swept the whole mess up and stuck it as far down into the garbage can as I could.
Your grandma discovered the missing jar after lunch when she went to calm down her sweet tooth. She asked me about it. I lied—poorly. She got the truth out of me in about thirty seconds–I didn’t learn to lie well until years later. Then grandma whipped me with a switch until my little butt was bright red. I can still feel those red lines of pain on my eight-year-old backside.
With you and your brothers and sister, we were more “enlightened” parents. No beatings. Just time-outs. When Steffan lied to us about throwing eggs at Mrs. Johnson’s house, we sat him on the stairs for a couple of hours until he fessed up and told us the truth.
That’s what’s happening to me right now. I’m in a time-out. Problem is I don’t know how to get out of it. I have so much to confess. Who do I tell?
I have a great shame, Trevor. I deserve more than a time-out. Even if I confess, who could ever forgive me?
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Thank your mother for me for allowing us to continue.
Your future has endless opportunities. Every day, you walk out your door into this big, smelly, beautiful world and who the hell knows what might happen to you? You might kiss a girl or get beat up. You might float your canoe down the Green River all the way to the Puget Sound.
My fate has been simplified. I can stay here, looking out into the fog. Or I can get on the boat. I don’t want to stay. But the bloody boat and the bloody hag who steers it both repel me.
Today I asked Gordon to join me for lunch at the Laughing Gull. I knew the fish and chips would be bland as ever, but I wanted the sensation of chewing at least. Gordon and I walked down to the restaurant in silence. I never noticed before how quiet Gordon is. I guess that when Carl was here, I could take Gordon in smaller doses. Now I depend on his company, but there’s not much to it. He was a professor, but he’s no longer luminary, if you know what I mean. He doesn’t exactly glow with wisdom. He’s like a book of quotations. Classical sound bites. They sound smarter than they really are. Even so, I wish he would say more of them. I wish he would say more of anything.
While we were chewing away, the well-dressed black man came in and sat with us. He ordered a cup of coffee, then cringed as he said the words. He looked out the window into the fog. “When does it come back?”
“The boat? You’ll know when it’s coming back.”
“Everyone knows. And everyone gets quiet and everyone waits for it.”
“Terminat hora diem. Terminat auctor opus,” said Gordon.
“Huh?” said the well-dressed black man.
“The hour finishes the day; the author finishes his work.”
“What the hell’s that mean? What work?”
“Just ignore him,” I said, even though I had the same questions.
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Have fun at the water park..
I’m back to my old routine for now, except that Carl is no longer part of it. Martin is gone. Julia was only here for a short time, but I miss her, too.
It’s down to Gordon, Sung-Hee, me, and a few newcomers I don’t have the energy to get to know. I see them wandering between the cabins or loitering at The Laughing Gull. One—a youngish black man with the nicest suit I’ve seen up here—came to ask me about The Woods. Sung-Hee had told him I’d been there.
“It’s nothing,” was my reply to his questions.
“But can’t you tell me about it?”
“I just did.”
Gordon has become my most common companion. I’m grateful for him. When I told him about Carl, he listened silently. When I stopped talking, he was quiet for a long time. We both were. He finally whispered, “pulvis et umbra sumus.” I didn’t ask him what it meant. I think I know.
I’ll wait to hear from you. I’m good at waiting.
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I was kind of hoping Evelyn would say hello. But I understand I’m in no position to ask for anything. I’ve invaded her home without her permission. I’ve taken advantage of her hospitality.
It probably seems pretty bizarre, too. In her position, I would likely assume the letters were all fake. All the work of some sort of sick predator or some other weird thing. It would be hard work making me believe that they could actually be coming from beyond the grave. I’ve never been very good at believing. The funny thing is that I’m still not. I mean, I’m here. I’m in it. I am officially supernatural now and I still doubt.
Your mom, on the other hand, has always actively looked for the miraculous. Evelyn, you’ve always seen every green light or tax rebate as the active hand of God. When Rhonda had so many heart problems as a baby, I saw them as a curse. You saw each day she didn’t die as a miracle.
No wonder I miss you so.
I hope you let the letters continue, Ev. This is a shot for me, you know, to do something for this kid of mine. Or maybe that’s not right. Maybe it’s a shot for him to do something for me. I don’t really know. I certainly don’t pretend to have any deep words of wisdom. I’m just trying to figure out my thing and he’s trying to do the same. But, you know, if a brother stumbles and all that.
Your call, though.
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I still haven’t heard from you. It makes me nervous. Your letters were the only rhythm to my rhythm-less existence.
Even the silent postman seems a bit shaken. You’ve become part of his rhythm, too. When I walked in to his tiny post office a few hours ago, his face had an actual expression on it for the first time that I can remember. It wasn’t quite sorrow. It was more nervousness, I think.
The smell of blood drew me away from Carl’s numb side and back to this seaside town. I knew what it was from the first subtle scent. It was that bloody boat. Just the smell of it made the woods seem even more dead—more lacking in sensation.
I stumbled out of the trees into the dim light of this place. I followed the smell down to the pier, just in time to see the boat pulling away from the dock. Sung-Hee came out of her restaurant, wiping her hands on her dingy apron. She looked at me with only the slightest of interest. Then she turned and walked back inside—she had two new customers on whom she could foist her miserable coffee.
The boat still terrifies me, but it pulls on me, too. I think it is the only choice I have here. Because I can’t stay in this in-between town. And now I know what the woods are. They’re death. They’re hell. So what does that make the boat?
If it’s heaven, it’s a terrible kind of heaven. If it takes me to another level of hell, at least it’s a hell with some kind of something. I mean it’s not nothing. It may be all blood and violence, but I tell you, Trevor, that scares me less than those woods. I’d rather go down in blood than go down beneath the moss.
Trevor, write me back. I’m on the brink. I need to hear from you.
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I haven’t heard back from you for a number of days. I’ve been rereading the letters you sent during my absence over and over. My God, Trevor, you’ve been living. So much of it may look like pain to you, but all of it looks like life to me.
That’s the lesson of the woods, I think. That true death is not doing. It is simply being. The woods, I believe now, are hell. That is where life really stops. The best case scenario in the woods is a kind of nothingness—a stopping of doing. A stopping of living. A burrowing under the moss and a returning to the soil. The worst case? That is Julia and the others with her on the far side of the chasm. With her? That is not the proper term. No one is with her. She is all alone. She is pure, longing loneliness.
Your life, Trevor, with your idiot of a basketball coach making you miserable every day, is so far from this. That may be all that you write, but here’s what I read: I read that Mr. Schick gave you a great gift by making you feel miserable. You felt something. So many teachers and coaches seem bent on making you feel nothing. I read that you forged a new friendship with this boy Brian, who obsesses over cars. God bless him! He cares about something!
In the woods, Trevor, there is nothing to care about. That’s why Carl sat down. That’s why he ignored my pulls and pleas. He sat there, uncaring, as his body sank into the damp dirt. The wet didn’t stir him, nor did my bullying. What did I have to tempt him? His miserable cabin? Sung-Hee’s lousy coffee? My companionship?
He sat there while I yelled at him. He sat while I told him stories, while I talked about you, while I reminded him about our boxing matches, while I recited bits of Yeats to him. I told him every tale I could remember, about getting in fights or getting drunk or hurting myself or having a belly laugh. I talked to him about the taste of a tangerine at Christmas and the way the sharp juice stings your mouth with flavor. I talked about watching your brother Rhett crash his bike and imbed gravel into the flesh of his knee. I talked about the feel of your mother’s hair against my mouth, about breathing in her scent.
Carl sat there. For days, I think. Maybe weeks. Long enough for the moss to grow onto him. I’d scrape it away, but he barely noticed. He breathed at me.
I nearly sat down next to Carl. But something saved me. A smell. A scent made it all the way into those smothering woods.
It was the smell of blood. I followed it back.
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I want to hear about your conversation with Mom. If I have to tell you more about the woods to do so, here it is:
As we stumbled along through the heavy moss, I had to badger Carl at every step, just to get him to continue. I thought about just taking him back to the town, as he was slowing me down, but I didn’t want to be in the woods alone. If I’d taken him back, he’d still be—alive, I suppose, is the closest word. He’d be one degree less dead.
At one point, I let Carl rest for a couple of minutes. He wanted to sit down, but I told him to lean against a tree. When he complained, I told him about Martin. That shut him up. We sat there in the woods, listening to Carl’s heavy breathing and the drips falling off the trees. “Come on,” I said, tugging at Carl’s arm.
“My feet are stuck,” he said. I yanked him free. It took a mighty pull.
We walked on—I have no idea how long. Time barely exists in this land. In the forest, it seems to stop altogether. There was no trail. There was no sun. I tried to keep walking straight, but the ground was so lumpy with moss and moss-covered mounds that I had no idea which way I was going. I’ve always had a lousy sense of direction anyway.
Those mounds—they were everywhere. They reminded me of moss-covered anthills.
Carl was about to collapse when I heard the sound of running water. I pulled Carl forward, my hand holding his, and we followed the sound. The ground sloped down until we came to the edge of the chasm. We’d reached the river, but at a different spot than I’d come to before. I had no idea if I was upstream or downstream from where I’d left Martin and Julia. I guessed and we turned left and began walking downstream along the chasm.
“How far are we going to go?” asked Carl. I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know. The ground continued to slope downward, following the flow of the river. None of it looked familiar to me. Near the bank of the river, the moss was even thicker and the mossy mounds crowded even closer together.
I was looking along the bank for any sign that looked familiar. I was looking across the chasm for any hint of Julia’s presence. On the far side, I saw what looked like movement. I shouted, “Julia! Is that you?”
“Help me!” shouted a man’s voice. “I’m alone!”
“I’m alone!” shouted another voice from across the chasm, a woman this time. “Someone please help me!” I could make out their shapes on the far side of the chasm, but couldn’t see their faces.
“Have you seen Julia?” I shouted. My question sounded stupid as it left my lips. I knew before they responded that they would have no information.
“Is someone there?” shouted the man in reply.
Another voice—a much younger man—shouted in response. “I heard something! Someone please help me! I’m so alone!” I could see the shapes, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder, crying out for help, for company. But I could make out no way to get across the chasm. Even if I saw a way, I don’t think I’d ever have tried it.
Then I heard Julia. “Help me!” she cried. “If you’re there, please help me!” I could see her in the dim light, looking blindly around.
Carl’s head jerked briefly at her cry. He looked over at her halfheartedly. “I suppose we should do something.” He sat down. “I’m so tired.”
I yanked Carl to his feet, Trevor. I pulled him away from the bank. I gave up on Julia. My intention—the most I knew I could do right then—was to try to save Carl and myself.
I failed Carl. I saved myself. Or, I should say, my self was saved.
That’s enough for now.
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Yeah, Donnie is a smart dork. He’s right. You need to do stuff.
That’s what the woods are all about—doing or not doing. That’s what this whole thing is all about. That’s the choice, I think. To do or not do. Being is not enough. Doing is what is required.
Carl and I walked into the woods, hoping to follow my old footprints back to Martin and Julia. I’d given up hope on Martin. I assumed he’d turned to peat by now. A rotten log for growing moss. I still held to the chance that Julia could be found and somehow rescued. I hoped that Carl’s presence would give me the courage to find a way to bring her back.
My trail was long gone, grown over by moss. I suppose a better tracker would have been able to find it, but I think a real woodsman would never end up where I am. He would know where he was going and have arrived there long ago. That’s why I’m here. I don’t yet know where I’m going, but I’m starting to figure it out.
With no trail, my only hope was to guess well, but all those moss-covered trees looked the same. Carl kept asking me the same basic questions over and over: “Are you sure this is the right way?” “Is this the same way you came last time?” “Does this way look familiar to you?” But I didn’t tell him to shut up, because the sound of his annoying voice was still better than nothing. I just kind of mumbled back to him while I wandered along.
And I wondered, sometimes aloud, if the woods were designed that way on purpose. “I bet there isn’t meant to be a destination,” I said to myself.
“Wh—what?” Carl huffed as he talked. The moss was heavy and hard to walk in.
“I think that’s the point, Carl. There’s no end here. There’s just journey. It’s like that old cliché—the journey is the destination.”
“I always—liked that saying.”
“Yes, but if there is no destination, than the journey becomes meaningless. The journey becomes wandering. It becomes literally pointless. That’s what the woods are, I’ll bet.”
“I’m tired,” Carl said. “Can we—sit down for a bit?”
“No!” I replied. “We can’t sit down. If you stop in here, you’re through.”
“Just—for a minute,” said Carl.
“No!” I shouted, but my voice seemed muffled. “Shut up and keep going, or there’ll be hell to pay.”
My bullying only worked for so long, Trevor. I’ll tell you more tomorrow. Right how I need to get my head out of the woods for a while. Even thinking about that place is deadly.
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O Carl, I miss you, too. Yours is a face that’s smoked 10,000 cigarettes. You told the same stories of closing deals on suburban split-levels until I wanted to punch you in the mouth. You were unable to make even the simplest decision. And you were the best friend I had since I died.
Carl is still in there, Trevor. Right where I left him. I stayed by him for what must have been many days, trying to get him to come back with me. He simply couldn’t decide what to do. So he did nothing. And now, like Martin, he’s turning back into nothing. Or into compost. His elements are coming unlimbed and unchained.
I know what happened to Martin now, because Carl showed me. It was a horror, albeit a slow, conversational one. The kind of horror that might happen over an afternoon of television and sandwiches. It was just as final and just as eternal.
I’ll tell you more tomorrow, Trevor. I’ll tell you everything.
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I’m back. Carl is not.
Your letters nearly filled my little box at the post office. How I can have been gone so long is a mystery of this place. In the woods, time must stop, because activity nearly does.
I barely made it out of that horror of a place. I failed in getting anyone to return. I saw Julia. I saw what little was left of Martin. I saw others as well. And Carl, my dear Carl. He’s in there still. He likely always will be.
Your letters, Trevor, were a shock to me. I ‘ve wondered–for days, apparently–if I had imagined them all. For a while, I convinced myself that the woods were everything. But somehow, I made it out. And my little cabin is still here and Sung-Hee is still here and Gordon. And your letters.
I’m back. I’ll write you more tomorrow, after I’ve read all your news.
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I’m scribbling this note to you and dropping it off at the post office as Carl and I get ready to head back into the woods.
Carl is tagging after me like a faithful mutt, waiting for me to give him a command. It’s strange. Once I gave him one order of leaving with me today, our relationship has changed. He looks to me for direction. I think it feels natural to him, to not have to think for himself. I understand that. This is not a place that encourages thinking, at least not without great effort.
I expect that I will come back, Trevor. I am nearly certain the woods are not for me, but I need to realize what they are for. They must have a purpose. There must be purpose, mustn’t there? I mean, even this purposeless place must play a role in the long stumble of our souls.
I hope we can somehow find Julia again and bring her back, but I only have the littlest bit of faith that will happen. Between you and me, it’s not my main purpose forgoing back in. If you had seen Julia and heard the chords her voice struck, you would understand what I mean. I don’t think there is any coming back for her.
Gordon came to see us off, holding his empty pipe in his hand for comfort, tapping the bowl and probably wishing hard for tobacco. “Post tenebras spero lucem,” he said to us. “After darkness, I hope for light.” I hope for light, too. I hope for something. Something other than what I have now.
Count on my return, Trevor.
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I told Carl today about Julia. It wasn’t until I received your letter that I realized I hadn’t told anyone. And the thought that perhaps I could get someone to go with me into the woods is a great relief. Assuming anyone in this town will go with me.
Carl was shocked, of course. How could he not be? I’m not certain he believes my story. He kept looking up toward the woods while I was talking. When I got to the part about Julia, he asked the same two questions that have been running through my head:
“How did she get across the chasm? How could you just leave her there?”
I told him I was going back. He said, “She could be dead by now.” I smiled grimly and asked him to come with me. He said nothing for a while. I asked him for an answer. He looked up at me without replying.
Right then I came to a realization. In this little town, the ruling authority is apathy. Nothing is what we do every day. We are deep into that ditch. If Carl had been capable of making a decision, he wouldn’t still be here. I realized right then he was no longer capable, so I took a different approach. I said, “Carl, you’re coming with me. We leave tomorrow.” He looked up at me and nodded. So I guess that settles it.
Now Trevor, about this basketball team you’re on. I want to hear more about it. I reread your recent letters and agree with you on one thing: Mr. Schick sounds like a real jerk. But if I was there with you, I still think I’d let you deal with him on your own. He is your dragon to slay, not mine. Should you stick it out or quit? Your call, my son.
When I was your age, I was no great athlete. I ran track in high school and did OK in that, even if I never loved it. I played a little soccer as well. I remember struggling through sports all during my high school years, wishing I was the boy that quickened schoolgirl hearts when a ball sprung from my instep and rocketed 18 yards past a helpless goalkeeper. But my body would never cooperate with my fantasies.
During my second year in college, I joined an intramural soccer team—men and women and just for fun. I mostly did it to meet girls. But playing then, when I was 19 and out of high school—something happened. My body began to cooperate. The ball went where I wanted it to. I could dribble down the field with my head up. I could see the channels for passing. I knew when to make a break. People noticed. No coaches came calling. But I was good. I was finally good.
And it no longer mattered.
I still remember the day I realized it, when I bobbed my head left, kicked right through two defenders and shot the ball into the back of the goal, feeling relaxed and in control the whole time. I laughed out loud because I realized the cosmic joke of the whole thing. No girls sighed. High school was over already. So much of life is about timing.
Here’s another joke for you. You and I have finally connected. Unfortunately, you’re still alive and I’m dead.
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One of the things most frustrating about dying of cancer was how much of my focus was taken up with my own pain. Pain was always yammering for my attention. So when Steffan or Keith would come home from school and want to talk about a girl or a bad grade, I didn’t have much left to give. I’d say, “Hey kiddo, how was your day?” And when one would ask me how mine was, I’d force a smile and say, “Not bad, not bad.” A son of mine would tell me what happened at school and I’d raise and lower my eyebrows and nod my head at the right places.
But they could tell I wasn’t really listening. It was hard to listen to a whisper about a social studies class when my guts were yelling so loud all the time.
That’s how I feel right now. I don’t want to be phony with you and say, “Mmm, basketball…nice. Good job.” I want to really listen. I may have to go back and reread your letters in a few days. Right now, it’s hard for me to focus on anything other than what happened in the woods. The memories are still shouting at me.
Back in the woods, I was sitting next to the motionless form of Martin. I heard Julia crying out from the other side of the chasm. “Julia!” I yelled.
“I heard a voice!” she yelled.
“It’s Hugh,” I said. “What happened to Martin?”
“Help me!” she cried in return. “I’m all alone.”
I repeated my question, but she only cried for help in return. I turned to the body beside me. Martin was still breathing shallowly, with a faint gurgle. I yelled his name right into his ear, but he didn’t respond. I shook him, pulling the moss from his face and torso. No response.
Martin’s skin was pockmarked where the moss had been. The moss had begun taking root. He was host to its parasite. I slapped him hard, knocking spittle from his open mouth. I screamed his name at him, but I may as well have been screaming at a log. I slapped him again. Nothing. I laid him tenderly back on the ground. He settled back into his body-shaped dent.
I stood up and stumbled through the thick moss toward the edge of the chasm. I nearly tripped, which would have sent me falling plunging into the dark. I stopped and stared down toward the roaring river, but the chasm was so deep that I could not see the bottom.
“I’m here,” I called to Julia.
“Help me,” she called back. “I’m alone.”
“How can I reach you?” I asked.
“I’m alone!” she cried.
“How do I get across?”
Trevor, I couldn’t stand to hear those words anymore—the insane repetition. I hated the reminder of my loneliness. I couldn’t stand to remain by that comatose body in the moss. I fled. I left her there. I turned and ran, following my own footprints in the moss, through the woods, back through the darkness toward town.
Enough for today.
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