Part Two

I was dreaming. In my dream I was back in school. That boy in my class, that puny boy, had been calling me names, kicking my seat, stealing my pens. I wanted to react, I wanted to tell him to stop it, I wanted to tell on him, but I couldn’t. I didn’t dare to because I was afraid of what worse things might happen later. He was not so puny anymore. He was much bigger than me, and I had no idea what might happen, what he could do to me, and that was what I was afraid of, so when I saw him, I ran. But in the hallway, I ran into that girl, that girl who used me make faces at me when I was younger, and she was all grown up now, and she was much older than me. She grew up faster than I did. Everyone grew up but me. She scolded me for running in the hallway. The other student gaped at me, and all of them were all grown up, while I was still small, a small sixteen-year-old, and I was growing smaller and smaller. In that moment I was afraid that I would keep on shrinking and shrinking until I was nothing anymore, until I ceased to exist, until every trace of me would disappear from the face of the earth. I tried to imagine that that might not be so bad, because nonexistence would mean no problems, no pain, but I was afraid of that as well. I tried to run away from there, but I couldn’t. My shoelaces were tied together, and I tripped as soon as I got up. And then my mother and my father loomed in the distance at the end of the hallway. They were angry I could tell. My mother had cloth wrapped all over her face like a mummy, but her feet were sure, and she was dragging a bloody sack, a river of red trailing behind her. My father had a ventilator pipe coming out of his mouth and the other end was hanging and swinging, attached to nothing, and there was a reddish fluid constantly streaming out of it, and he had multiple belts strapped around his body with his arms strapped in, unable to swing with his steps. The adult student cleared a path as they made their way. My parents were saying something, something angry, but with their mouths covered, I couldn’t tell what they were saying. My mind was caught in a panicked dilemma—on one hand, I didn’t want to upset them because I didn’t know what they were saying, and on the other, I was afraid of displeasing them by asking them to repeat what they were saying. I didn’t know what to do, so I began to cry. The students all around me laughed. They pointed and laughed. My parents go to where I was sprawled on the floor bawling, they knelt down and screamed in my ear, but I still could not even tell the words apart. Then my mother opened up the sack and pulled it over me.

I awoke with a start. I laboured for my breaths. I couldn’t feel my arms or my legs. I could barely see. But I could smell the remnants of petrichor in the air.

‘You’re awake,’ a voice said beside me.

‘What happened?’ I asked, my voice a croak.

‘The end of the world almost ended.’

I almost asked what he meant by that, but I thought better of it, knowing I would get an equally cryptic response that clarified nothing. Instead, I flexed my hands and wiggled my toes. It was like they had been sleeping and the blood was struggling to get back in there. After a moment, they began to tickle, so I paused and let my veins do their work.

My vision was coming back. I could tell from the light it was dawn, a red dawn, although the shades weren’t as deep as the day before. My memory was coming back as well. I remembered him, I remembered our journey, I remembered the clouds. And I remembered what happened before I blacked out.

We were inside some kind of culvert, the red morning hues basking everything around us in a dim bloody glow. The man was beside me leaning against the wall as if half asleep.

‘You saved me,’ I said to him.

He smiled a little smile. ‘Well, what would be the point of me?’

‘What was it? That cloud? And that smell . . . It did something to me.’

‘So it did,’ he said. ‘I understand what it’s like.’

‘How did you save me?’ I asked.

‘All it took was to pay it no mind.’

‘It wasn’t as easy as that,’ I said.

‘I know,’ he said softly, as if he regretted his choice of words. We went on after a breath, ‘It’s like a physical manifestation of the darkness inside us, the bad thoughts we have, the cruel fantasies we like to dream about. It’s an abstraction, more than anything physical and tangible, so the only thing you can do is run from it once you smell it. And the smell, it always comes first. It gets your attention, makes you feel good, makes you want more. And if you stop running, it gets to you and gets inside you, takes hold of your mind and your soul and destroys what little goodness you might have left in you, and it never lets you go. So, be wary of the smell.’

‘Did you smell the same thing I did?’

‘It differs from person to person.’

‘What did you smell?’ I asked.

‘Sawdust,’ he said. He turned to me for a moment and then looked away again. ‘We owned a sawmill when I was younger, right next to our house. The smell of sawdust was ever-present. It was the only smell I ever knew for most of my childhood, and my childhood was happy. And when I was a little older, I moved away to a different city for college. One night, barely a month after I was gone, a fire started inside the mill. Everyone was asleep. It was windy that night, and the fire spread fast. My parents. My brother and sister. No one ever found out how it started.’

‘I’m so sorry.’

‘Thanks,’ he said. He went on after a pause. ‘For a long time, I blamed myself. I’d wanted to go, to leave town. I was happy at home, but I always believed that happiness would someday end, and I was eager to leave before the end could come around. My parents had wanted me to stay, go to college somewhere nearby, and they did their best to try and convince me, but I wouldn’t listen. So, they let up. If they couldn’t change my mind, then they were going to let me go with their blessings. For a long time, the only thing on my mind was: If only.’

‘In a way,’ I said hesitatingly, ‘I envy that you have good memories of your childhood.’

He nodded. ‘The memories used to bring me pain, used to remind me of what I had, of all the things that I lost. But lately I’m starting to see them for what they are now—good memories. And no matter what, they remain good. But what about you? What did you smell?’

‘Petrichor,’ I said. ‘But I don’t know why I smelled that. I do like the smell, but I never associated it with anything in my past. I don’t know how it has anything to do with me.’

‘But it had a strong pull on you,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said. I wanted to keep on going, keep on speaking, tell him about my life, repay him for his personal story, but I could not think of a thing to say, at least not things that I wanted to talk about.

‘It’s alright,’ he said with a pat on my back

‘But it doesn’t make any sense,’ I said.

‘The end of the word doesn’t have to make sense. We all carry our own weights. We know they’re heavy, and most times, knowing that’s enough. We don’t always need to talk about or even remember what makes them heavy.’

‘What if I don’t ever want to remember?’

‘What we want doesn’t come into this. But remembering, or not, is not what’s the most important either. It’s understanding. You see, memory is a fickle and untrustworthy thing. On a bad day, what used to be a good memory can feel sad, and on a really bad day, a bad memory can drive you to do things you regret. But, if you understand what makes a good memory good, or a bad one bad, then you can begin to trust your own feelings, and trust yourself to make the right decision no matter what you feel when you think of something that’s happened to you in the past. Whether we choose to keep it locked inside of us in the darkness so we never have to see it, or we tell it to anyone and everyone to try to get rid of it, we all remember, one way or another. Once you stop running from it, then that’s when you begin to understand.’

‘Understand what?’ I asked.

‘Yourself, of course,’ he said matter-of-factly.

‘What about where we’re going? You said we’re going to Understanding.’

‘That we are,’ he said.

‘Is this some kind of a metaphorical journey?’ I asked.

‘There it is,’ he said with a smile that shone through the dirt and soot on his face. ‘You have a strong heart and a good mind. You’ll get there.’

‘What do you mean? You’re not coming?’

‘This is as far as I go, my friend,’ he said.

‘But why?’

‘It’s essential you go on without me from here. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of the journey. But know that you’re never truly alone. And hopefully you’ll meet others like me along the way, if you’re lucky.’

‘Others like you?’

‘Precisely.’

‘How do I know where to go?’ I asked.

‘Would it be a cliché to say follow your heart?’

Shaking off the lethargy in my legs, I heaved myself to my feet. I wanted to stay with him, wanted him to stay with me, but I was beginning to understand, or at least I wanted to begin to, and I didn’t want to question it. If this was the way it had to be, then so be it. I would not linger.

‘How are you here?’ I asked. I was curious, but I also couldn’t help delaying my departure. ‘How do you know so much about this place?’

‘This is a journey many have had to take. I’m simply one of many. One day it could even be you in my place.’

‘What about the dangers ahead?’

‘It’s better to take them on as they come, not before.’

‘And how will I know when I’ve reached the end?’

He only smiled.

I was only beginning to enjoy the ambiguity of his responses. I nodded with a smile in reply, and I said, ‘Thank you.’

‘No need to thank me. It’s all you,’ he said. ‘Now go on.’

My heart was heavier than I thought it would be as I walked away. After a few paces, I turned back to have one last glimpse. He was still sitting there, resting against the wall, and from the distance, I realized what that feeling of familiarity was. He was me, an older, more experienced me. It didn’t make sense that he was there, and his story was not mine, but he was me, somehow, in some strange way. That realization gave me a little hope, and I admitted it gladly into my heart without fear of disappointment. After a few more steps, I looked back again, but he was already gone.

The day was maturing and the redness of the skies were washed by the white of the sun behind the thick clouds hanging lower than ever. And as I walked, the events of the night before, the words of the man replayed in my head like a broken record. There was no point in trying to make sense of all of it. The only thing that I could do was to accept that nothing made sense here, but that was hard when everything that surrounded me in all my short life made sense. Even the strangest things, the most abnormal, the most depraved, had at least some kind of logic behind their depravity and abnormality. It had been something of a jolting realization and a hard idea to welcome that the things that went on within the walls of the house I lived in were characterized as not normal by other people when it was the only thing I had ever known. What other kind of life could there be except the kind I’d gotten used to? How could it be possibly true that a life could be lived without fear and without pain, at least for a day? Was that normal? It was a notion that burrowed deep in my mind ever since I could contend with and mull over such thoughts in secrecy. But such thoughts had a tendency to sour and they had their ways of manifesting outwardly. Sometimes those manifestations would confuse me—the strange sense of gratification that I hoped to feel seeing the kind of fear that I constantly felt reflected in someone’s eyes, the strange sense of amusement that I hoped to suffer by transmitting a fraction of the pain I continually lived with onto someone else—but those things always made sense in some or the other. It was a battle on its own to come to terms that nothing made sense here, and more importantly, nothing had to make sense.

The days passed slowly, and the nights were even longer. Sleep was a hard thing to come by. Even when I felt my body drifting off, my mind, ever-vigilant and ever-fearful, would startle me awake, and the hours would drag on with my eyes blinking open every few minutes until the last blink would turn the darkness of the night into dawn. I tried to keep count of the days, but after just the third—or was it the fourth?—I lost count, and I decided that it didn’t matter. If I’d kept count, it might’ve been after about a week of solitary travel that I chanced upon a dog.

I was walking along a dirty alleyway, taking what little respite the shadows of the buildings could offer. I had been questioning whether I was heading in the right direction, whether there was such a thing as the right direction at all, and what following my heart was really supposed to mean. Was I following my heart by taking random turns and letting fear and the search for the safest byways dictate my decisions? And what really was at the end of this journey? Some kind of a spiritual plane? Would there be a gate that I would have to walk through? An angel robed in white to welcome me? How would I know when I got there? Would there be a sign, perhaps blinking in purple neon saying “Thou Have Reached Thy Journey’s End”? But my thoughts were interrupted by a sound of shuffling in a dark corner.

My instincts were telling me to run, to get as far away from it as possible, but there was a tiny part in me that wanted to approach, at least see what it was, a tiny part that, against what infinite dangers the dark corner might harbour, hoped for something else, anything else, apart from all the rubble and the storms and the scorching heat.

I peeled away the layers of garbage, and there, curled up, was a mongrel with a yellowish-brown coat interspersed with white hair, short droopy ears, and a long back snout. Its eyes were wide and as it stared at me, and it barely had enough energy to whimper, to beg for its life or fight for it, and it could only weakly shuffle.

Never having had a dog or any kind of pet, I had little to no idea how to even make my approach, let it know that I was no threat. I had my hands out and fingers spread to show that they were empty and that I posed no danger to it, but I saw how my posture could easily be misconstrued by a frightened mind as a reach with ill intent.

Telling the mangy dog that I meant it no harm, and that it was okay, I slowly reached down with one hand. It found the energy to snarl when my hand moved closer and closer. Its gums were black, there was more than one tooth missing, and although its canines were still intact, they were a reddish-yellow.

It snapped at me a couple of times, but it made no motion to scurry away, probably because it lacked the energy for it. But once my fingers brushed against its fur and no pain issued from it, his snarling turned into something you continue to do just because you are expected to, and after a while, the snarls turned to whimpers again as it tried to move to show that it has accepted my offer of friendship. I petted it, combed my fingers through its short and matted fur, scratched its chin, and slowly it found the strength to wobble to its feet and approach me to rub itself against my feet. It was a boy, and he looked to be some good seasons past his puppy years.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked as I sat down on the ground in front of the dog. It had no collar.

As if in response, he whined a little and licked my hands.

‘Do you want to come with me?’ I said as I finally got up after a while.

It was as if the weakness in his muscles moments before were only psychological, and the presence of something, anything, that wasn’t trying to kill him has given him the spring in his steps again. He woofed in eager acceptance of the invitation, and despite his assumed old age, he leapt keenly ahead of me as we began our journey together.

I’d always wanted a dog when I was younger, after I’d accepted the unlikeliness of a little brother or sister around the age that I turned seven or eight. Even the want for a younger sibling was more of an occasional fancy than an actual desire because I knew the kind of days and nights that he would have to survive and, although in my loneliest moment I would make promises to myself to be the strongest shield and the most loving brother in the astronomical event of my fanciful hypothetical dreams coming true, I knew the truth was much more miserable than I could ever hope to overcome. I was naïve, and I had the opinion that a dog would stand a better chance of survival and at the same time be a good companion. It could take care of itself most of the time, it had long sharp teeth and long sharp claws that it could put to use if it was threatened. I always imagined a large dog, like a Saint Bernard or a Great Dane, and I always imagined them being my loyal friend and protector, until I was big enough and strong enough to protect myself and protect and care for my loyal friend in its old age. This mutt walking beside me when he wasn’t bounding ahead to investigate a smell or a sound, was barely as tall as my knees, but with every mile we walked, with every kiss he gave me, with every gentle call for attention, with every doggy answer to my words, my heart grew closer to him and I would not trade him for all the biggest giants in the world.

The going was slower since I met him, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. He had been mostly leading the way. I trusted him more than I trusted myself after three days of uncomplicated progress with him walking ahead of me. But in the back of my head, there was a constant fear that it wouldn’t last. When some things were too good to be true, more often than not, they turned out to be, and I’ve had a number of experiences like that, too many already to even expect otherwise. And although I tried to keep my spirits up, it was the end of the world after all.

One evening, as we were passing through a relatively intact neighbourhood, the dog suddenly paused in his tracks and raised his snout to the air. He sniffed, turned his head and sniffed. I sniffed too, but I smelled nothing apart from the usual charred remains of the world.

The dog uttered a sharp bark at an empty street once and sprinted towards something. Tired legs forgotten for a moment and worry taking its place, I followed quickly on his heels.

After we turned a few corners, I could discern a certain odour in the air that grew stronger and stronger until it turned into a reek. And after the last corner, the dog stopped, staring and barking at a giant heap in the middle of the road a good few yards away from us, covered in a large discoloured sheet that was presumably once pristine white. Flies buzzed over it and there was a rainbow-coloured stain on the asphalt issuing from beneath the covering. The dog remained at a safe distance although it kept up its aggressive vocal challenge as I approached cautiously. The offensive stink was the most ungodly odour that I’d ever had the misfortune of perceiving. My approach was deliberate and slow, but it was made even slower by the number of times I had to stop to dry heave. Even with my nose pinched tightly, the stench was such that I could taste the fetor in my mouth and down the back of my throat.

Knees quaking and arms trembling, I took the last few steps and reached down to the edge of the cloth. It had been hardened in the heat by whatever substance it was saturated by and it crackled as I raised it up. A powerful gust of the miasma came at me all at once and knocked me back a few steps and I let go of the sheet.

The dog, I realized as I held my stomach and retched, had not been barking for a while and was instead watching anxiously, poised to spring forward in case of any kind of threat. Seeing me seeming to suffer, it whimpered a little, but it kept its distance, wary of what dangers there might be.

Taking a deep breath that I immediately regretted, I went back in with determination. In one motion, I grabbed the sheet with both hands and pulled it away to uncover whatever was beneath it.

At first glance, it looked like some kind of a creature that I’d never seen before in my life, but it was really a corrupt amalgamation of different animals. It had two slightly misshapen heads but not losing its identity of that of a man and a woman, the body and limbs were that of a large hog, the tails—it had two tails as well—were of a horse and an elephant, and it had big bat-like wings that were riddled with holes and torn in many places. This marriage of a creature was lying on its back balanced by the protrusion of the wings that were shrivelled and folded to its sides. Its ribs were splayed open and the inside of the torso was hollow except for the maggots and flies. The dried and congealed blood, if it was that, was of a bluish red hue, almost purple but not quite, and where it was still glistening, it reflected the light of the sun into an array of colours that seemed almost otherworldly. Its hoofed limbs raised towards the heavens were curled and stiff, and its tails pointed in opposite directions. But it was the faces that struck me the most.

There was nothing obviously wrong with the heads or the face, but there was something familiarly unsettling about it that produced the uncanny valley effect on me. The longer I stared at them, the colder the chill in my spine grew, but somehow, I could not tear my gaze away.

The man’s eyes were open wide almost to the point where it looked a little like the eyeballs could pop out of the sockets at any moment. The eyes were staring straight up at the sky, and with his mouth slightly ajar, it looked almost like it was comically shocked at what it was seeing if it could see. Proceeding from his mouth and down the sides of his chin was a glistening colourless stain that had tiny black dots that looked at first glance like stubble, but after I stared at it for longer than a moment, I realized that the black dots were swimming within the thin layer of the substance, and they seemed to grow bigger and bigger the longer I had my eyes on it, but the moment I blinked or looked away for a second, they were back to their minuscule sizes. I transferred my gaze to the other face, the face that bore the likeness of a woman. Her hair was matted into clumps and there were all sorts of matter, organic and inorganic, dry and slimy, clinging onto it, and even with the breeze, not a single strand ever moved. The ears were long and pointy and had some kind of thick short black fur growing out of the holes, or maybe it was stuffed into it tightly like a nest. The eyes were closed, but the lids were bulging, like the eyeballs underneath were already out of their sockets and the thin skin was the only thing holding them back from falling out and rolling away. There were streaks of dried stain that I presumed were supposed to be tear stains down the sides of the face and down to the fuzzy ears, but the stains were darker than the rest of the face, like whatever had issued from the eyes had its own distinctive colour.

There was a small gap between the heads, and on the small shadowed ground there, there was a tiny puddle formed from the tears that flowed from the female’s closed eyes and the substance that flowed from the male’s mouth. I leaned over to take a good look at it. The puddle, although it had no light on it except the dim ambience, seemed to glow flickeringly, like there were millions of microscopic light-creating life teeming. The lights within moved in a display of unique and hypnotizing murmuration, the colours waxing and waning and mixing to form new colours and hues, and the particles within were forming abstract shapes and then transforming into something else flawlessly, and I felt myself growing more and more engrossed in the array, and I felt the world around me slowly fading into the background as the utter singularity of the visual pageant stimulated my perception of reality, and I heard grand and eccentric and diverting music in the air to complement the vivacity of the world that was starting to envelop me.

I was floating in water-like air. My movements were slow, but there was no hurry. The sensations on my skin were pleasurable and within me was a bloom of ecstasy. The music in the air filled my ears and there was an angelic voice serenading me, singing poems and lyrics of delight. I swam with joy and happiness, and contentment followed close behind. The cosmic breezes blew me towards a honeyed scent of satisfaction and euphoria.

But there was something annoying, something pesky, that refused to let me drown in this celestial bliss. It was like a tiny splinter, a little pinprick, the pebble in your shoe, the grating noise when you’re trying to drift away. I tried to ignore it and focus on the pleasure, but every time I thought it was gone, it recurred with a louder tone. It was sharp and harsh and impossible to turn a deaf ear to it.

This cosmic space of eternal euphoria was not devoid of its perils after all, I thought, as I looked above me and right overhead was a black hole sucking all the joy out of my existence. I tried to claw away, but its pull was stronger than I thought. I felt my body being tugged at, but the colourful air around me turned into hands that clung at me, refusing to let me be pulled away and out. I felt a sharp painful nip in one ear and I yelped in pain, my voice seeming to echo in my head instead of issuing from my mouth, but in that moment of pain, all I saw was red and black and all I felt was slime. But quickly the pain evolved into pleasure again, however, there was now something strange about the sensual delight. It never quite came up to the ecstasy of before, and I feared it would all quickly devolve to pain again.

I summoned all the extramundane strength I had within my means and I pushed myself away from the black hole, and just as I was feeling the strength of the consuming hole weakening its grip on me, I felt another sharper pain on my ear that sent an electric shock throughout my whole body.

I was awake.

I opened my eyes and I saw the reddish blur of the clouds overhead and I felt hot breath on my face. And what was that noise? Barking? A dog? My dog.

His face loomed over mine as it barked and yelped and whimpered and it bit down on my shirt collar and tugged at me again and again.

Where was I? It was wet and slimy and stinky. Something seemed to be on the verge of swallowing me, and I was already neck-deep in it.

Strength, propelled by a powerful revolting sensation as I caught the stench of where I was, sprang to me suddenly and I pushed myself out of the hole.

Dripping in blood and guts and maggots and flies swirling in circles around me, I struggled out of the reeking body cavity of the dead creature and stumbled away from it, crawling on all fours and retching my thorax to splinters. I would’ve probably kept on crawling until my hands and knees wore down to the bone if not for the dog.

The good boy brought me back to reality, licking the grime off my face, woofing and whining in concern for me. But I was fine. I was alive. My mind was present. In gratitude, I put my arms around my saviour, but he yelped out as I felt something soft and wet on his side.

The blood that covered him was fresh and it came from his own body. He breathed heavily, but without uttering a whine he lay down on the warm asphalt, his eyes drooping as they gazed at me.

I inspected the wound. A big chunk of the skin was hanging by sinews and the flesh underneath was a deep red mess that looked like it had been chewed up, and I could see the white of the ribs beneath. Blood dripped from the wound like a faucet and nothing I could do with my hands helped any.

Promising him that everything was going to be okay, I left him lying there and I ran and broke into a residency nearby to look for anything that I could use on the wound even though I had little to no idea what to look for apart from disinfectants and bandages. And although I knew that the severity of the wound was laughably beyond anything I that could do to help it, I could not simply watch him die without at least trying. I rummaged the house and found some iodine solution and bandages in a cabinet and rushed back out as fast as I could. But when I got to the dog, he was no longer breathing.

As I buried the dog in a park nearby, for the first time I shed tears that were not for myself, and they were tears that had been stopped for a really long time.

Feeling the tickle of the drops running down my face, the emotions I felt the last time I cried came back to me in a flurry. I had been angry, as I always was, and I was trying to learn how to not let that seething emotion wet my eyes any longer, but I just couldn’t help it that day almost a year ago. I couldn’t remember what it was all about, just the whiteout blinding rage that consumed me in that moment and seemed to burn every muscle in my body, unbridled energy itching to be unleashed, that had to be unleased, that needed to be directed at something alive. And I had unleashed it. I closed my eyes, and I could vividly still feel the kicking, the muscle spasms within my iron grip, the croaking as the air from the tiny lungs was squeezed out. The puppy had not struggled for long. And as soon as the life left my innocent victim, so was all the flaming energy within me expended. I also remembered the fear, the guilt, the disgust, the hate, the grief, the cold blade, the warmth of blood; but there were no tears in my eyes after that.

I opened my eyes to the burning skies that reflected the embers now stoked up in my heart, and I felt a similar kind of energy bubbling inside of me. I bit the inside of my cheek and clenched my fists in an attempt to quiet the tremors that this dangerous vigour was causing. But a part of me, I realized, wanted to let go.

I grabbed the shovel and marched back to the carcass of the creature.

I screamed and I cried as I let go.

It was late dusk by the time I collapsed out of sheer exhaustion and my hands were bloody to the fingertips. The creature no longer had heads, its wings were severed and torn asunder, its limbs were twisted perversely, and the torso was open wider and fragments of its splintered bones were strewn everywhere. As the heat from my body left me, the heat of the air seemed strangely cool and calming. I closed my eyes as my breathing slowed and I drifted off to sleep.

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