written by Nicholas Woods
With a red hot furnace for a face, Lewis gulped the last of his beer. He never let them sit long enough to lose any bit of their chill. The Miller light was still plenty cold in his mouth and it reminded him of his parent’s basement growing up, memories he quickly pushed away. He had come to the bar at the request of mark reluctantly. They had grown apart even though they’d never admit it to each other. Mark had always relied on Lewis and he felt the weight of that responsibility tugging at him when Mark lost his job last year. He got him a job trimming trees and had warned him not to fuck this one up.
Lewis knew another beer wouldn’t make a mark a better friend but he also knew it wouldn’t hurt either. Mark was rambling on about how he’d like to cut a sequoia redwood down one day. “They’re big, that’s for sure but I bet the sound of topping one is damn near orgasmic” Lewis replied “mark you almost died today when that crow landed on a branch, You’re the worst tree man I’ve seen” Mark Began to spit out his rebuttal when he entered a small seizure and froze mouth wide open. Lewis laughed for a split second before realizing something was off. Mark had steadily been later and later to work each day. He obviously hadn’t been sleeping much. Most of the crew chalked it up to his drinking but Lewis had a feeling in the pit of his stomach he couldn’t shake. And then mark was back but he continued to stare off-kilter. “Hey man let’s get some shots in us, it’s Friday so we might as well celebrate”
Mark started to open up to Lewis as the drinks flowed. “I can’t sleep man, I can’t fucking do it” normally Lewis would write this off as attention-seeking or some kind of cover-up for Mark’s poor work ethic but, there was the slightest tear at the edge of Mark’s eyes while he spoke.
Pink tinted tears that just hung there like sap on a leaf, not ready to give up the ghost. Mark explained that he hadn’t had a full nights rest in weeks. Ever since he went to visit family in New Orleans he had felt sick but had no symptoms. No physical symptoms that is, except one. He had lost weight. Slowly but consistently.
They got drunk. In a desperate way that was not healthy. Sweaty painless moments of bliss twisted with a sick twinge of knowing reality would return. Lewis finally dragged Mark out of the bar and agreed to walk home with him after much-slurred deliberation. Mostly because Mark swore he needed someone there to watch him sleep. He had been having night terrors but he couldn’t remember what they were about. The truth was Lewis had never seen the pure terror in someone’s face since he saw his father die. A slow painful death for someone that doesn’t believe in an afterlife is a hell of a thing for a 12-year-old boy to witness. His face was still burned into his psyche at reach at any moment. Ready to flash into his thoughts intrusively without warning. Mark had that same face now. Of a dying man.
They stumbled into the train yard close to Mark’s boarding room apartment. There’s something to be said for looming machinery sleeping like giant beasts waiting for the right moment to fire up and crawl with intense power. Lewis kept waiting for a sound to cut the eeriness in two but none ever came except for his own breath and the gravel below each boot softly crunching. They crossed 6 sets of tracks and found the fence hole to the alleyway. And the intoxication seemingly floated them into Mark’s apartment and then into the bedroom where a sleeping bag was rolled out for Lewis. They were talking like old friends again when mark changed shirts after spilling a beer. That’s when Lewis saw mark’s ribs poking through the paperwhite skin he had apparently been hiding for some time.
There’s something deeply uncomfortable about noticing something that has been in plain sight for a long time. There’s a moment that comes for a lot of people when they realize their teachers drink, or that their parents aren’t invincible, or that their friend is dying. Lewis knew he wasn’t going to live forever but being reminded of his friends own mortality was much more visceral than he could handle. He corned him and demanded answers. “ how long have you been using Mark?” “Lewis,” mark replied with a sincerity that cut through the drunkenness, “Lewis I’m not using, I swear man! It’s these dreams man. It’s like something else is doing it to me, something inside” his eyes flashed for a second. Hauntingly blue now. “Mark man we got to get you to a doctor. Tomorrow man, I’ll go with you.” Lewis gave some excuse about work and explained that he didn’t have insurance and besides what do doctors know? The tension passed when mark pulled out a bottle of jack daniels and talked Lewis into taking a few pulls. They laughed about events that weren’t really funny but they were shared moments and they fell asleep. In the same bed. Friends.
Lewis couldn’t be sure for how long he had slept. He had no dreams at all as usually happens when you pass out hammered drunk. He didn’t notice the dry urine in his own pants or the blood at the corner of his eyes. He didn’t notice anything. Before his mind could even hold a thought the terror came swiftly and took over. Mark was dead. Lewis knew it. Knew it before he touched him. Laid out beside his friend with a grimace on his face and the slightest glow behind his eyes. Had the glow always been there? It must have.
The only reasonable action for Lewis to make was to swig off the nearly empty Jack Daniels bottle next to him but that was a mistake. His throat was hoarse from screaming at the top of his lungs although he had no recollection of doing so. He made it to the bathroom before throwing his guts up but he aimed for the tub after seeing how dirty the shared bathroom toilet was. As the vomit came out in bursts of pain, reality came crashing in. Mark was really dead.
The police would have probably grilled Lewis. Normally he would have stayed and done the right thing. But the dreadful feeling he felt intensified when he walked back to Mark’s room until he couldn’t stand it. He had to get out. He told himself it was a boarding house and someone would notice Mark’s door open. They’d call the ambulance. He had to believe it.
Lewis slammed a beer on his way to work. He cried in the parking lot for a minute then grabbed his gear. The day was a blur thanks to the two lunch beers he brought with him. He caught a glimpse of himself in the rear view mirror and made out the tiniest glow behind his eyes then looked away quickly. He had to know. He had to see Mark’s body again.
After a couple hours of working up his courage at the bar, Lewis started making his way towards the train tracks again. He felt like a kid taking out the trash in the pitch black. He sprinted towards the fence as the fever of terror grew with each step.
He was in the room. There was no sign of Mark’s body. No caution tape at the door. The room was untouched.
He no longer knew if the glowing sheets were real or if it was emitting from his own eyes. He could feel the tug of the void trying to swallow him. It was too late not to give in. The bed was his reprieve. He dropped the bottle from his hand and ignored it’s cacophony of screams against the floor. The part of Lewis that knew he must live at all cost was a dull echo in his brain that subsided as he crawled into the bed.
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