Chapter 3: Lethargic Civilization

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 54

They got into Epiphone at 7 pm on a Thursday night. The very first thing they did after dumping their packs and rifles in the woods was to go staggering into the nearest Burger King to blow thirty dollars on greasy patties and large milkshakes and a pile of fries as big as Jack’s head. They devoured the first half in record time, scarfing down bite after bite as big as their mouths would allow. There was nothing on earth - no thrill of the kill or rush of adrenaline - that could have rivaled that burger. Mustard and ketchup dripped onto the cheap paper wrapping, floppy pickles kept slipping out of the bun. For one blissful, gluttonous moment, every trouble in the world was gone. All that remained was only Jack, his burger, and his large chocolate milkshake with a second cherry on the top. 

Warden picked up the tomato he’d picked off his burger and laid it atop his own. Their feverish pace slowed into a contemplative slough. Jack chewed the last few bites of his burger with focused slowness, mindlessly watching Ned pluck a french fry out of the pile and nibble upon it thoughtfully. It was dark outside. Inside, the fluorescent lights cast them onto the huge open windows like a TV screen. Jack watched his reflection swallow back the last chunk of hamburger and scoop up a lingering dollop of ketchup with two or three fries bundled together. 

His reflection looked fretfully to and fro. Wherever there was a shadow inside, there was a tiny window of sight back to the outside. He instinctively scanned the darkness for glowing yellow eyes, for hulking antlered forms that lumbered through the shadows. He took another slurp of milkshake, thoughtlessly watching Warden and Ned mumble together on the window like he was watching a film. There was nothing outside - if there were, it would have come in already. 

Ned crumpled up his wrapper and sat back with a sated sigh. Warden belched contentedly, and Ned whacked him across the back with a long suffering snort. 

“You’re disgusting.” 

“Don’t I know it,” Warden replied, voice still hitched from his latest gaseous emission. Ned made a face and locked eyes with Jack, slurping silently across the dappled plastic table. 

“I’ll kill you if you turn out like him,” He said with a smile. Warden winked, and Jack rolled his eyes heavenward, straw hitting the bottom of his cup and gurgling with the last dregs of chocolate perfection. 

The three of them were silent for a little while, basking in the peaceful lights and their full bellies. It was quiet inside the restaurant; they were alone save for two employees talking lowly in the back room. Jack sighed, at ease. 

The wind picked up outside, and they turned to look at the giant window, met with their own faces. 

“We ought to turn in soon,” Ned said, “I don’t wanna be tramping around in the woods looking for my gun past eight.” 

“Yeah,” Warden agreed, slowly sitting up and stretching. “They tend to get more rowdy after the air gets cooler at night.” 

Jack put his burger wrapper in his empty milkshake cup and sighed again, this time from weariness. 

“I need to sleep for about a week,” He said. His head felt heavy. 

“I know, kid,” Ned mumbled, “Me too.” 

Kid? Jack wanted to ask, You're . . . what? Nineteen? He kept his mouth shut, though. He was too tired to even jest. He just wanted to sleep.

Ned bundled him out of his chair and the three of them left the quiet restaurant in single-file. Ned held out his hand to Jack -  who handed him about half their wad of cash - before he split off from the group and headed alone towards the nearby motel. Jack felt a heavy pang of anxiety watching his solitary form stride off on his own, but he kept it to himself. Warden had told him he needed to grow up. 

The remaining two - the orphaned pair of brothers - headed in the direction of the sparse words surrounding Epiphone. They exhumed their packs and weapons from beneath the damp leaflitter, shooing ticks and ants away with unvoiced annoyance. The rifles never felt so heavy; Jack groaned as he heaved them up to his shoulders. 

“Oh, quit whining,” Warden said, though his voice lacked any real displeasure. “Just a short walk to the hotel.” 

“I know, I know,” Jack mumbled, head hanging low. 

“We still need to patch Ned up.” Their boots crunched on gravelly asphalt as they came up onto the road which led out behind their night’s shelter. 

“I got it,” Jack replied. He felt autonomous, automatic. He was so far removed from himself he barely felt the ground passing breath him, or the chill night air, or the moving of his own muscles. He fancied himself a machine; doing what he ought to do without thinking about it, without willing it, just letting it happen. 

 

Ned left the window curtains sticking out a bit from underneath the closed window. It was their usual signal. Casting quick glances behind them, Warden tapped on the window. A second later, the curtain jerked away and Ned’s face appeared in the window. He jiggled the rotting window open the barest bit, sticking his arms out. They handed him the rifles one-by-one, then the crumpled packs and other sundry items they wouldn’t take in through the front door. 

“Romeo, Romeo,” Ned mused, brow quirking. “Wherefore art thou Romeo.” 

“We’re gonna -” Warden cleared his throat, “We’re gonna go get you some stuff.” 

“Stuff?” 

“Drugs,” Jack blurted, then blinked, confused. “Like. . . benadryl or something.”

Ned’s raised brow did not descend. “Okay,” He said. “Be careful.” He looked over his shoulder, at the rifles on the bed. “Don’t be long.” 

“We won’t,” Warden promised, taking a step back. Ned nodded, struggling the window shut. He drew the curtains closed with a snap, and the world became incredibly more dark.

 

He heard Warden shuffle away from the back alley, but for a moment, Jack stood rooted before the closed window. The blackout curtains didn’t quite conceal the thin sliver of warm orange light that slithered out between them. The whole of the world condensed down into a swell of orange and black, fuzzy around the middle as his eyes drifted out of focus. He was dizzy with exhaustion, and it took every ounce of his effort to drag him into movement. The fuzziness didn’t go away, and neither did the soft ghost of orange light, haunting his vision in a faint mirage. 

Warden and he made their way towards the lone convenience store, located on a deserted corner. The fluorescent lights were too bright and they buzzed like bees; mechanical, autonomous bees. Now and again the one in the corner would flicker, and Jack’s heart would skip just a bit. The cashier watched them from behind the corner, dead-eyed and bored. Jack had completely forgotten the existence of other human beings, he was ready to just go home. 

Warden foraged for ibuprofen and gauze in the first-aid aisle while Jack aimlessly browsed for something to snack on. He grabbed two Gatorades, thought a moment, then went back for a third. He piled them high in his arms, turning to trail after Warden. His older brother gently balanced a large pack of batteries and a couple cans of soup utop his cache of supplies. He looked down, saw Jack’s dejected face, and quiered, 

“Everything okay?” 

He didn’t have the energy to shrug, so he merely hummed softly in response.

They dumped their supplies onto the counter and the cashier peeled away with an indifferent eyebrow raise. Jack stared at the cigarettes behind the counter and listened to the distant beeping of the machine. Colorful packaging wavered, a tableau of normality. Calm civilization rotated purposelessly beneath the sky, oblivious to the things that haunted the forests just outside their backdoors. 

“Is that all?” the cashier asked.

“Sure is,” Warden said easily, flashing a smile. “Thanks.” 

“Sure.” 

Warden handed the two plastic bags to Jack, who took them silently. The automatic doors flew open with a whoosh and they were back in the night. Cool air nipped at the skin on Jack’s freckled nose. The lazy twilight breeze kicked up the first few fallen leaves and hurled them at their ankles as they trudged back to the motel. The glowing billboard outside was the only light for several meters, and its light bled wanly into the rising fog. 

They found their room, and Ned opened the door on the first knock. In the man-made light, he was looking a little worse for wear. He was pale, even under his suntan; a little green around the mouth maybe. Jack, for some reason, fixated on the dark circles under his eyes. 

“We come bearing gifts,” Warden said with that infamous charm. He waved grandly towards Jack, who lifted the bags with a weak grin. Ned’s face slipped into an indulgent smile. 

“So you have,” He mused, stepping aside and letting them in. It smelled . . . settled. A little like detergent, dust, maybe a humid hint of shower gel. Jack dropped the bags on the bed and immediately went to collapse on the armchair in the corner. The lone lamp had attracted a singular moth, fluttering fretfully around the dusty, pleated shade. Warden and Ned were speaking in soft voices at the door, which Warden shut with one hand and leaned over to peer out of the peephole. 

Footsteps. Ned came and sat down heavily on the bed, running his fingers through his hair. It was wet: he must have taken a shower. Jack’s hand went to his own hair, raking through greasy strands of brown. He got the brown from his mother; the only baby to come out favoring her. Macy and Warden looked like Dad; green-eyed and auburn-haired. 

His eyes trailed to Warden now: knelt before Ned and anxiously dabbing at the flesh of his forearm. He was missing chunks in some places; it would be an ugly scar. 

“It looks worse than it is,” Ned was saying softly, and Warden grunted in response. “I think I’m okay.” 

“You’ll be okay,” Warden said, seemingly more to himself than to Ned. “Yeah, you’ll be okay.” 

Ned smiled, though Warden never saw. He reached, rummaged in the plastic for the bottle of ibuprofen. Warden pulled it from his hand to open it for him; break the safety foil and leave the lid on the bed. 

“Jack,” He said, not looking at him, “get him some water.” 

“I can get my own water,” Ned insisted, “let him be.” - but Jack had already pulled himself up and walked the ten steps to the bathroom. There was an upside-down cup on the counter, which he filled with lukewarm tap water and brought back. 

Ned took it, gratefully. He dumped a small handful of pills onto the bed, scooped up maybe seven or so, and swallowed them back with one enormous gulp. Warden was applying butterfly bandages to the worst gouges in Ned’s arm, a pile of bloody cotton next to the man’s own knee. 

Jack went back to the bathroom, shut the door, and locked it. Mechanically, he turned on the faucet, then the showerhead. He sat down heavily on the toilet and unlaced his filthy boots. He peeled off each sock, encrusted by four day’s worth of sweat and dirt. With one hand he felt over his ankles for ticks; found none, and tossed them aside. He shucked off his heavy canvas jacket, then pulled the sweatshirt underneath over his head. 

It was always a surprise to rediscover what tee shirt he’d put on at the start of their hunting trip. To his muted delight, he found it was a ratty black band tee from Goodwill. He’d never seen Pink Floyd, nor heard any of their music, but he liked the way the shirt looked. It had become one of his favorites. 

The tiny bathroom grew warm and damp, like a sauna. It amplified the undesirable smell of unwashed fourteen-year-old, but it sucked the cold out of his bones like poison from a wound. Jack stripped off his tee shirt, threw it over his growing pile of clothing. He unbuckled his belt and stripped off his jeans and underwear in one fell swoop. The mud and grass-green had slipped through the fabric and stained his knees. The skin had peeled off one where he’d fallen a few days ago. 

He found a tick in the crease of his knee, removed it with his thumb and the sharp edge of his knife. 

He stood, bare as the day he was born, and filled the sink with hot water. He dumped in his knife and his watch, but he kept the necklace strung around his neck. Then he stepped, automatically, into the hot spray. 

It burned at first, but it was a good burn. He stared at his feet and watch the water turn a sluggish grey and slip away down the drain. There wasn’t much soap left, but he gave his hair a good scrub, force of habit more than anything else. And then he stood, head down, for a long time and wondered why his life had to turn out like this. He wondered why civilized places felt so foreign to him, now. He wondered if it was wrong that he felt more at home in desolate places full of creatures damned by the holy.

His skin was bright red when he stepped out of the shower. He dried himself with the last towel and slipped back into his dirty clothing, save for his socks and his shirt. In a sham of hygiene, he turned his underwear inside out. 

Ned was lying on his side on the bed when he came out. Warden sat next to him, long legs hanging off the side. They were still talking, not taking notice of him as he returned to his chair. 

Bereft of immediate danger, Jack dosed. At some point, Warden got up and moved away. The distant patter of the shower morphed into a discordant dream of rushing winds and waterfalls. Jack’s eyelashes scattered the fuzzy orange light, casting it in strange shapes against his eyes. 

He opened them, weary, and looked over to the bed, where Ned lay. One arm pillowed his head and the other one - the wounded one, was cradled close to his chest. He was awake, looking across the expanse of carpet at Jack. Jack did not smile, but Ned did. His eyes crinkled up with kindness and the orange caught - all sparkly - in them. 

Outside, the wind picked up. It was a little more like a howl, now. Jack turned his head, looked towards his rifle, leaned up against the TV. He pulled it into his lap, resting his hands over it. He tipped his head back, looked at the smooth, featureless ceiling. 

And then, his exhaustion-riddled brain hit upon a true eureka moment. 

He realized - with a cold wash of dread  - that because of his older sister, he would never be at ease again.


Submitted: May 09, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Arlie Robertson. All rights reserved.

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