In the middle of the night, I wake up in a room that isn’t my room. The room is huge, as big as a cathedral, and the walls and floors are comprised of yellowed panels of oak and gray blocks of granite polished smooth by a hundred years of dead feet. Thick flakes of snow leaf from the vaulted ceiling. Gray plumes of smoke loiter in the chilly air. Sharp particles of dust scratch the back of my throat.
As I clamber out of bed and start the five-mile walk to the kitchen to get a drink of water, I try to remember the meaning of life. Moments before I woke in this place I had grasped the answer to that mystery and all others, but now that ferocious and devastating insight eludes me.
An hour later, I trudge across the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Doughnuts. The lot is empty. The sky is half & half. Humming sodium lamps cough cones of cerulean light onto the spotless snow. The delicious smells of chocolate doughnuts and hazelnut coffee fill the air around me, but I keep walking, straight through the drive-thru lane and out the other side. I don’t want to work here anymore. Dunkin’ sucks. The drive-thru lane sucks. The customers are nasty and impatient because they haven’t had their coffee yet. Eleven dollars an hour is not enough for the drive-thru lane. My life is a mess. I wish I was a nineteenth century philosopher.
Stepping off the pavement, I start the trek across the muddy field behind the Dunkin’ parking lot. Wet clumps of cordgrass and purple blooms of deertongue lick the spaces between my toes. The gnarled fingers of a paper birch tug at my wrist, my hamstring, the meat of my naked thigh. An ex-girlfriend once told me I have a good thigh. She said it was muscular and well-shaped. To this day that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.
Stumbling upon a stone wall no taller than my ankles, I look down at my steel-toe work boots and huff a slicing sigh. What’s the point of all this walking? All this fucking and eating and working? Everything that has ever existed on earth will be annihilated five billion years from now when the sun balloons into a red giant, so what’s the point of doing anything? These seem like questions for the philosopher part of me, so I ask him. He says he doesn’t have an answer right now. He says he has to think about it. He says he’ll get back to me in due time. I thank him for his honesty, but I don’t expect any answers. I know how he operates.
More walking and I sense a man as thin as onionskin clumping through the snow behind me. I know exactly who he is, but I can’t remember his name. This is very embarrassing. From the sound of his crunching footsteps I can see his shining white hair, his mirrored silver skin. His golden eyes that shimmer like the August sun at noontime. I’m a little bit afraid. I don’t look back.
Three hours later, I arrive at my bedroom door. As I raise my hand to turn the knob, the onionskin man crosses sixty miles in a stride and presses his nose to my face. Why does he always do this? He has a sharp nose. His breath slides cold and metallic across my cheek. His pinky glides down my arm and unzips the skin behind my elbow. Trembling in fear, I close my eyes and try to turn away. But still I see him staring, my eyelids as clear as glass.
Steve Gergley is the author of the short story collection, A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair (LEFTOVER Books ’22), and the forthcoming novel, Skyscraper (West Vine Press ’23). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/