LAST EXIT (new short story)

He had moved every summer since he left his parent’s house at eighteen. He wanted to say it was a relief to be done, but he couldn’t. Not when a thin film of sweat hung around his body like a glistening second skin, soaking through his tee-shirt and making him painfully aware of his flabby chest. The moisture never stopped moving. It crept down the back of his neck and pooled in the sunken hollow of his diaphragm. Most disgusting of all, it turned his nether regions into a steaming, slippery mass of flesh, so irritated and foul he was sure he could feel a case of jock itch coming on. Still, this was the last time.

He didn’t know for certain what pushed him over the edge, but his Grandmother had certainly helped. The old girl had left him and each one of her grandchildren a hefty inheritance. Really, it was a small fortune, and he had been surprised when he discovered the full amount. It didn’t catapult him into the realm of lottery winners or the Hollywood Elite, but it was more than he had ever known someone his age to have. At least, someone he knew personally.

This silver lining only came after she had been diagnosed, and then suffered through a blessedly short battle with colon cancer, a time that had been hard on the entire extended family, but had struck him as mostly surreal, like some sort of Lynchian nightmare. Everything about her last week was so strange and wrong that he hadn’t the presence of mind to cry until her memorial service, when he very suddenly burst into tears, as he sat in the second pew behind his mother and father. He felt as though all eyes in the church had turned to look at him, but he couldn’t stop, and was too ashamed to lift his head up. Instead, he bawled through most of the homily, only able to control his quavering wails when his cousin laid her own trembling hand across the nape of his neck.

He had passed most of his nights back home with mindless indulgence, staying out until the bars closed every night and then frantically calling each girl he still knew in the city until he was certain he had no choice but to return to his own bed. Actually, it was the guest bed now. His own childhood room remained untouched, but he had long since outgrown the tiny twin mattress and now slept in his older brother’s repurposed quarters, that existed in some strange purgatory between a memorial and a replacement. The walls had been repainted, and all the posters taken down, but there was still amateur artwork everywhere, most of it now framed by their mother. The dresser was still full of clothes, all of it made for the whippet-thin kids they had been in high school. Half of the memories of his sibling had been erased, but that only made what was left stand out in stark relief against the scrubbed sterility of the Guest Room makeover. It only served to remind him of exactly what he was in his parents’ home; a family member and a loved one to be sure, but a guest above all else.

He wondered now, hauling in the last of the boxes from the U-haul parked outside, if that had spurred his seemingly rash decision. It had only been three months since he first saw the ad, though he had been idly searching the Internet since he had left his hometown for his apartment on the coast. He always knew he wanted to own a house one day. Being the youngest child in a family of means had left him spoiled and expectant of space and comfort, but his own father’s miserly tendencies had been passed down to him, and thus he was never quite comfortable with ponying up the cash he needed to rent an apartment that suited his desires. Once he had been back on the job for a week (his employers had generously given him a full week with his family), he found himself paging through real estate listings more and more often. At first, it was a method of motivation, a reminder of what he might someday get to if he kept working and kept his thoughts in check. Then he had quickly realized that he had no knowledge whatsoever of housing markets, and that decent, and even better than decent homes were cheaper than he thought. He began expanding his search outside of the coast, and drifted back to the town of his Alma Mater, where he had spent most of his adult life and where many of his closest friends still resided. He had allowed himself to daydream and rationalize, all of it kept safe with the knowledge that he could never afford such an extravagance as home ownership, or at lest, not for a while.

Then the letter from the executor of his grandmother’s estate had come, and once it had been opened, it remained lying on his coffee table while he sat a safe distance away, eyeing it with suspicion while he downed half a pack of cigarettes. He was suddenly a wealthy man, and he was just as suddenly faced with the realization that at least one thing he wanted was firmly within his grasp. He deliberated a few hours longer, and then made a decision.

Now he was here, back in the steamy town of his not-so-long-forgotten youth, and he had just put the last box inside the front door of the house. His house. The U-haul was open, but he didn’t want to go back out in that oppressive heat, with humidity so crushing he felt as though the air were digesting him. He quickly reasoned that nobody would want to steal a dolly and two rubber floor mats, and locked the front door. The clack of the tumblers echoed through the empty space, bouncing off the hardwood and mingling with the noise of his footsteps as he walked across the expanse of he living room floor to flop down on the couch. Interior decoration could wait until tomorrow, he thought, and drifted off to sleep.

 

He awoke some time later. The familiar sound of cicadas hummed softly on the other side of the windows, and Dave smiled to himself, briefly confident that he had made the right choice to return. He twisted on the couch, contorting his enormous frame into a more comfortable position. A yawn stretched his mouth and brought water to his eyes, and when he brushed it away, he felt instantaneously refreshed and optimistic. The living room was darker, with a few trace amounts of withered grey light filtering in through the curtainless windows. Dave stood up on creaking bones and hobbled across the room, pleased with how easily the window opened. He stuck his head outside and found the air had cooled rapidly since he fell asleep, with ominous storm clouds beginning to roll in from the West. He knelt on the floor, propping himself up on the sill of the window with his elbows, and hung his chin outside, enjoying the breeze as he cast a lazy eye around his new neighborhood.

There was a large, mud-spattered pickup parked at the end of the gravel drive directly across the street from his. Some unknown person shuttled between the bed of the truck and the yard, unloading a series of objects wrapped in blue tarps. A middle-aged man and a little girl walked briskly down the sidewalk closest to Dave’s house, the little girl prattling on in a breathless voice while the man nodded and smiled. Dave smiled as the girl suddenly noticed him watching and broke into a gap-toothed grin, followed by maniacal waving. He returned her wave, and her father’s polite nod. They continued down the sidewalk, shuffling a little faster as thunder growled in the distance. The two trees out front rustled against the wind, and Dave felt the first few drops of moisture tickle his face. He straightened up, shut the door, and walked back across the great expanse of hardwood to the front door, his steps booming in the unfurnished room.

He unlocked the front door and crunched across the gravel drive to the open U-haul, noting with a small hint of dismay that the dolly and floor mats were nowhere to be found. Some things never change, he thought as he yanked the rolling door down by its strap, recalling more than one night passed by a series of drunken petty larcenies (anything that wasn’t nailed down to a front porch was fair game). The door finally gave way and clattered down, and Dave removed his padlock, managing to beat a hasty retreat to the front door moments before the first sheets of rain came slashing down.

He shut the door behind him, feeling exhilarated. He was long overdue for a good thunderstorm: it never rained out on the coast, something he had always found curious. Many children were scared of the thunder, but Dave had always loved it. He still fondly recalled a family trip to New Mexico when they had crossed a great expanse of open plains during a torrential downpour, and each jagged lightning strike had lit up entire sections of the black clouds draped overhead. The peals of thunder that followed had been terrible and magnificent, the aftershocks seeming to roll out forever across the endless prairie that zipped by the window. Dave’s brother had been scared, though tried not to show it, peppering their bleary-eyed mother and father with questions as Dave sat up in his seat, nose pressed tightly against the glass.

There was a bounce in his step as he crossed the living room once again, weaving through the islands of the kitchen to the back wall of the breakfast nook, where a small staircase was tucked inconspicuously into the corner. The property was set into a slight hillside in such a way that the “ground floor” of the house gave way in the rear to a screened-in porch with a walkway that led down to a sunken backyard, with a small spare room tucked into the side of the hill below. Dave thumped down the linoleum covered stairs, making a mental note to figure out how much it would cost him to have those redone, and shivered as he landed at the bottom. The room that he planned to furnish into a study was cold, the floors done up in brick and the walls thin against the howling wind. Still, it was the perfect size for what he had in mind, and it even came equipped with a working fireplace on the exterior wall, all the better for lounging around during days like these. He pushed and pulled some boxes out of the way until he could reach his leather recliner chair, which he shoved over to a corner by the window, situating it just so. Dave sighed as he settled into the chair, the rain beginning to patter against the glass pane inches from his face as the thunder gave off a muted, soothing boom. Things were looking ok. He wondered if it was an inherent backwardness in his soul that made him feel at peace and serene when the weather raged, but deep down, he knew that he had made the right choice, that perhaps a little grounding was all he needed to get his life on track.

Dave sank deeper into the recliner and closed his eyes, feeling the steady drum of the rain begin to lull him into dozing once again. A blister of thunder pulled him out of his reverie, and then a close, ear-splitting shockwave followed, forcing him from the chair in a near-euphoric display of enthusiasm.

“Let the heavens fall!” he shouted at the low ceiling. Upstairs, a door slammed.

His eyes slowly drifted upwards. Was he hearing things? He turned to look at the narrow staircase leading back upstairs and felt his heart thud hollowly against his breastplate. There was no flicker of shadows, no approaching footsteps. Cautiously, he went over to the stairs and poked his head around the shaky banister, craning his neck at an awkward angle to see if he could get a look into the kitchen.

Nothing. The rain smacked loudly against the windows and the last ounces of daylight cast strange liquid shadows on the wall, but no one was there. Dave exhaled softly, and mounted the steps two at a time. Once his feet were firmly planted on the tile of the kitchen he felt more comfortable. More on dry land. Perhaps he had only been imagining it, or mistook a sound from outside for the front door. A few waves of uneasiness still sloshed around in the pit of his stomach but he tried to ignore them.

Dave had already decided that he was too tired to unpack all the boxes now, but he would need to at least find where he had stored his bedding. Kitchen utensils could wait until later; he would order in from that awesome wing place he and his friends had frequented during college. The thought of food brought an involuntary moistness to his lips, for he had been on the road for nearly 6 hours and then unpacking for another 3 without much more than gas station junk food to satiate him. First thing was first, though. He pushed through weariness and hunger towards the pile of cardboard boxes stacked three high in his living room, and then felt something squelch underneath his foot.

He looked down and saw mud, black as tar, creeping out from under his sneaker. They ran from just shy of the kitchen’s threshold all the way back to the front door: a series of muddy boot prints, two by two up to where he was standing and then the same back to the door. Panic-stricken, Dave dashed through the rest of the house, flinging open the doors to both bedrooms and the bathroom, only giving the most cursory glance into each blank, darkened chamber before moving on. His head swam with possibilities and wild accusations, and he whirled around in place, trying to think of something to do. The adrenaline began to taper off again, and his instinct to fight gave way to creeping dread as he racked his brain for some sort of solution. He stomped over to the window and pressed his face to the glass, but everyone had retreated indoors, away from the storm. He went to turn away, but then something caught his eye.

The mud-spattered track was still there, across the street. The bed was nearly empty now, but a few of the blue tarps flapped against the wind, their color brilliant against the grayscale of the storm. Dave scanned his view from the window for any other movement, but there was none. Then, a person (the same from before?) emerged from the side of the house, and began to pull the wrapped objects from the back of the vehicle. It was a man, Dave could see that now. He was dressed in a pair of ratty, paint-spattered jeans and a puffy vest that resembled a life preserver, worn over a grey hooded sweatshirt that obscured his face. The bed dipped and bounced under the man’s weight, and Dave watched, mesmerized, as he disappeared each of the wrapped objects, of varying dimensions, around the corner of the house. The man came back for the final load, hopped onto the bed, and hoisted the cargo onto his shoulder. He then carefully made his way to the edge of the truck and hopped down, pausing to reposition the bundle seconds before he turned and looked at Dave. Dave reached for curtains that weren’t there, feeling the coldness of the man’s gaze reaching out from underneath the shadow of his hood. The man stood stock still, staring through the slashing rain as it slowly darkened the grey of his sweatshirt. Without thinking, Dave’s hand slowly came up and waved limply back and forth. The man turned and tromped off into his backyard. His boots were splattered with mud.

 

He had wasted no time in calling the police, but they proved to be unhelpful. While the responding officer was polite and expressed and appropriate amount of concern over the strange footprints in his house, he also, somewhat apologetically, explained that if Dave hadn’t seen anybody enter his home, they really had nothing to go on.

“Are you at least going to go question him?” Dave asked, indignant. The officer again apologized, but said that the man who lived across the street was not at home, and once again, given the circumstances, they did not have cause to search his property. He did, after some convincing, agree to go over and have a look. Dave leaned against the frame of his front door while the officer walked across the street, hitching his belt up in a universal code that he really didn’t want to be doing what he was doing. Dave saw the officer walk leisurely around the driveway, running his flashlight over the bed of the truck and inside the cab. The storm had petered out to a light misting of drizzle, and Dave watched the officer wipe beads of water from his brow as he sauntered over to the fence line, flicking his flashlight beam up and down the yard. Given his nonchalant walk back to the house, Dave could only assume that there was nothing incriminating anywhere, and the officer said as much once he had returned.

“Listen, if you’re really concerned about this my advice is to lock your doors. I know this is a safe neighborhood but you can never be too careful, OK? If you want us to, we’ll send a unit to do a drive-by later on in the evening and make sure everything’s all right.” Dave mustered as much enthusiasm in his thanks and said that would be great. The officer left with a curt nod and Dave watched, swearing under his breath when he was sure the cruiser was well on its way. Some help the police had been. The cop, who couldn’t have been a year older than Dave himself, had even had the gall to suggest that Dave might have tracked the mud inside by himself and forgotten about it (preposterous as it was, Dave had checked his shoes carefully and found nothing). In a flash, he made a decision, and craned his neck until he could just make out the car’s taillights rounding the corner at the end of the block. Then, with determination, he tromped across the street to the neighbor’s house.

Out of sheer force of habit, Dave rapped three times on the little glass window of the front door. No one came, of course. He peered into the dark room through cupped hands, but it was no use. He tried the door, and found it locked. His feet crunched in the gravel driveway, and he found himself unreasonably irritated at the way his shoes were sinking into the soft earth underneath. He passed by the mud-spattered pickup truck and glance inside: there was nothing except for a few scraps of burlap and bits of crumpled up tarp. He moved on, groping his way towards the fence as his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark. He blindly clawed his way towards the gate and reached over to find the latch. It clicked up on the first try, and the hinges let out a groan as he eased the gate open. He paused, waiting with ears pricked for some voices or dog’s barks to ring out across the yard, but there was nothing. He stumbled through the threadbare yard, and climbed up the back steps.

There was a dim light coming from some part of the house, but whatever room the back door led into was also dark. Dave yanked on the handle. The door shuddered but did not move. A flash of anger shot through Dave’s head, and all of the fear roiling away in the pit of his stomach suddenly gave way to a fierce and blinding rage. He resolved that instant that he wouldn’t have his chance at finally getting his life on track snatched away by whatever sick games his neighbor was playing, and he wasn’t going to be conscripted into believing everything was fine by some failed quarterback who had no fallout plans after a blown-out knee. He backed up to the edge of the tiny cement porch, reared back, and sent a kick straight to the wood just adjacent to the door’s lock and handle. The wood splintered with a satisfying crunch, and two more kicks dislodged the wood entirely from the frame. Dave reached in and snapped the deadbolt back, and the door swung open in the wind that remained from the storm.

The inside of the house reminded Dave of all the hovels he had bounced to and from in his undergraduate years: old newspapers and pizza boxes were piled in corners, and the furniture, what little of it there was, looked old and dilapidated. In another room, there was a TV tuned to a scrambled cable signal, and the shapes on the screen undulated beneath a cascading wave of static. Dave shot a glance out the front windows each chance he got, growing paranoid about when the man in the gray sweatshirt would return. He began to sweat. The sensation of his skin growing warm underneath his slightly sodden clothes was so disgusting it made him retch, but he kept it under wraps, and moved from room to room, becoming disoriented, forgetting which ones he had already looked in. They all seemed the same, piled with garbage, and cloaked in uniform darkness.

Finally, he stumbled into a room that was blank, on the exterior of the house. The scent of his own stale sweat broke, and a pungent stench crept into his nostrils and seemed to coated the air with a thick, sticky quality. His eyes began at the blank ceiling and then traveled down to rest on the top of a pyramid, blue and shiny. The tarped objects had been piled in the corner of the room that was otherwise bare. The floor was coated with a viscous, dark fluid that crept out from the base of the terrible monument and rippled slowly under the hum of the ceiling fan. Dave’s felt hot tears spring to his eyes, and he slowly backed away from the black puddle that crept closer and closer across the floor as the fan droned on. Before he could decide what to do next, he heard the front door locks tumble in the door, and the man in the grey sweatshirt’s frame slouched inside. His bulk obscured the light form the front porch, and he seemed to hesitate. A plastic bag dangling at his side hissed as he shifted his weight from foot to foot, and Dave took the moment to bolt, slamming into his neighbor with all of his weight, managing to shoulder him out of the way just enough to stumble down the front steps and out into the yard. He ran, his feet slowing to a torturous plod in the gravel walk, and then finding new freedom as they hate the pavement of the street. Dave felt the adrenaline slam through every muscle in his body as his legs and arms pumped, the cramps in his side flared, and his breathing came in shallow, ragged gasps. He ran, in no direction but away.

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