Having spent the night in a post-apocalyptic wasteland stabbing my enemies, I shuffle into the kitchen heavy-lidded and adjusting to reality. The setting may have been new, but the mood is always the same—devastating. The hellish dreams drag me out of bed between four and five in the morning each day. My psyche can’t endure any more hours of torment than that. My saliva is thick, like paste, and I have to pry my tongue from the roof of my mouth. I sleep with my mouth open wide so that the ghosts can climb in.
As always, the kitchen is eerily bare. Not a single dish or glass in the sink nor a crumb on the counter. No signs that someone actually lives here. It is dimly lit, which I find calming. The Sun has slept through his alarm, zonked from a cocktail of Xanax, ketamine, and jalapeño margaritas. I’ve been there, young Sun. It isn’t pretty. In an Achomawi myth, the Sun tried to escape the sky by falling to the ground, where he then intended to roll away. But the Mole caught him and, with the help of the Achomawi people, the Mole shoved the Sun back onto his shelf, where he has remained ever since. I understand the earnest desire to break free.
I look out the door that leads to my back patio. The sky is separated into two distinct colors that are stacked on top of each other like brothers in a bunk bed. Above me, the sky is black like a bruise days after a bar fight. Behind the mountains, it’s light blue, almost silver. I am dying to interrogate the sky, to ask her how she manages to live as two fractions of a whole:
Is it sustainable in the long run?
Does one part have to eventually die in order for the other to fully live?
Which portion is the more honest representation of your heart?
I imagine the sky listening with a cigarette drooping from her lips and her eyes half-mooned and staring into the distance at something I can’t see.
The flora should be dead this time of year, but the trees are alive with memory. The recollections circulate through their branches, revitalizing them. The towering sugar pine trees shiver under their robes of snow as frozen giants casting off shadows of my past. The shadows scream at me, telling me things I don’t but do want to hear with their voices like thunderclaps. They are right. I can be vicious. There is an inhuman piece to me that I’m trying to unravel. I have treated those shadows poorly. I marveled at how delicious destruction tastes up until the moment I swallowed. The shadows are trapped like fireflies in a jar. I sometimes tease them by unscrewing the lid only to let them discover that they’re stuck inside of a larger jar. In this way, I keep my past alive.
When I press my palm to the window, the shadows duck and play in the muddy snow, balling it up and tossing it at my cabin. The snowflakes explode like frozen fireworks. I’ve always hated fireworks.
There is another Achomawi myth about sugar pine trees. The story goes that the Creator made one of the First People by dropping a sugar pine seed in nutrient-rich soil, where it eventually grew into a man: Sugar-Pine-Cone Man. Sugar-Pine-Cone Man had a family and worked hard. He was a good, honest man. Not all of us are, and that’s okay.
I put on some coffee even though I’m grinding my molars down to the root. The coffee machine gurgles and spits like a person freshening their breath with mouthwash. The shadows of the trees peek into my cabin, their breaths fogging the windows as they whisper amongst themselves like gossiping angels. They know what I keep chained up downstairs. They want to see her for themselves. I wish they would close their pretty mouths.
I flip open my cell phone. Knowing that I won’t have any messages, I quickly close it so that the stupid beach background will stop mocking my loneliness. That’s the thing about solitude—you can pretend it was your choice, but every living and nonliving thing around you knows the truth. Loneliness. It’s the reason children create imaginary friends they can laugh with. It’s the reason I don’t banish the shadows or release the beast into the wild.
Still grinding my teeth, I pace between the kitchen and the living room, listing all of the animals that have exoskeletons. I always do this whenever I wish I had some armor of my own:
Grasshoppers, cockroaches, crabs, lobsters, snails, clams, chitons, spiders, ants, scorpions, shrimp, dragonfly nymphs, cicadas, butterflies, moths.
Pausing by a living room window, I steady my hands on the windowsill. The shadows mutter something in a language I don’t understand. It echoes throughout the snow-brushed mountains. Their whispers are louder than the bombs of my dreams.
Chains rattle beneath my feet, causing the floor to vibrate. I stomp and the clanking stops. I smile. She misses me. We have quite the co-dependent relationship.
By the time I finish my coffee, the Sun begins to peak over the horizon as if to ask, “Is it safe to come out yet?”
No, young Sun, go back to sleep. The world is not made for someone warm and kind like you. It’s too bad the Mole stamped out your potential.
The shadows dance freely to the tune of the chirping birds. What I would give to hear what the shadows say behind my back. I wonder what they tell their new lovers over cocktails in hip city bars. I wonder what they say while sitting on the floor of their bedrooms drinking white wine. Or maybe, in those moments, they don’t speak of me at all. In that case, I don’t know why I have what I have in the basement.
I think of one shadow in particular: Ava, with her late September eyes and saccharine smile. We’d spent a week together, entangled like the roots of a sugar pine. We’d fucked and drank and explored the city with fresh eyes and new fingertips. She hadn’t minded my obsession with exoskeletons; she said that she understood the desire for protection, that she understood the vulnerability that comes with being alive.
We’d shared two bottles of Pinot Noir and soon the confessions began to flow. I’d held her as she told me about her father’s late-night visits, how he distorted her ideas of trust and safety. At some point, I told her about the beast I keep, my most heavily-guarded secret. Ava had listened with her whole body, her fingers twitching against my shoulders as my words traveled through her nerves. And yet, when I was done telling her, she’d pushed herself off of my chest and sat back on her haunches, eyes narrowed. She hadn’t believed me. Said she didn’t think something like that could exist undetected for so long. I hadn’t known what to say. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a possibility she wouldn’t believe me. Who would lie about such a thing?
“But your father has one, too,” I’d whispered, after a few moments.
“Yeah, exactly,” she’d said, staring at me.
Ava touched my bearded cheek and said that I was a tender man. She urged me to embrace that about myself. I would have been more comfortable if she had berated me, but a part of me liked the reassurance.
“There is no beast, Dimitri. It’s all just in your head,” Ava breathed into my ear, nibbling on the lobe.
I thought that I was in love. I thought, “This is what I want. I want to be with Ava.” It terrifies me that I could have been so wrong about my own feelings. It took hurting many more women, and thus, creating more shadows, for me to understand that I am incapable of love and that no one is meant for anyone else.
When Ava had flown down to visit me a month after our beautiful week together, something was different. I was different, and she knew. After all, you can tell when you’re losing someone. Every cell in your body alerts you. But I hadn’t known how to say it out loud. The words were helpless, caught in the web of my throat. I left her crying at a party so that I could do blow with a fire-haired woman who kept a beast of her own. We let them out in the backyard of her cottage. The fences were as high as sugar pine trees. The brilliant leaves fell in slow motion and the beasts nibbled at each other’s necks, elated to have a friend. But beasts can’t really have friends, can they?
I set the mug in the sink and prepared myself mentally. I walk over to the basement door and undo the metal latches I had installed after the beast had learned how to unlock the door from the inside. Closing the door behind me, I descend the stairs slowly and listen.
I sit on the fifth stair and lean around the wall to observe her without her knowing. The beast is chained up in the corner, baring her teeth, her fangs longer and sharper than I remember, as if she’d spent all night filing their edges. Her eyes are those of a vampire in a blood-soaked battlefield. She is thrashing about wildly as if the basement is engulfed in flames; although, on second thought, she might like that. She seems disturbed. Her muscles are bulging so intensely I’m afraid that with the next flex she will burst out of her chestnut fur, shedding her version of an exoskeleton. Her veins throb and pulsate. This is what the beast does when she doesn’t know what I’m up to. She doesn’t want me to forget about her, even though deep down she knows I could do no such thing. To forget her would be to forgive myself.
When she sees me, she stops thrashing and her eyes know. Her body relaxes like she’s a week-old balloon. She closes her mouth and cocks her head to one side. Her fangs stick out from her upper lip and they look more goofy than formidable. Her jaw quivers and I notice that her teeth are chattering. Her wrinkled paws are larger than cast-iron skillets.
“Wanna go for a walk?” I ask, my breath visible in the cold of the basement air.
The beast does the little where she pitter-patters her paws. Sometimes, the shadows demand that I put her down. Sometimes, they give me grief for not feeding her treats. This morning they can’t decide what they want so they return to their trees and ask the Sugar-Pine-Cone Man, the good man, honest man, what to do.
“You’ll freeze out there so we better put your sweater on, baby.”
The beast groans but allows me to pull a repurposed afghan blanket over her head, slipping her right leg in the proper sleeve hole, then the left. In the beginning, it was no easy task but she grew used to it the way one can grow used to anything.
People don’t understand the beast. They think she is all bad. But no one is all bad. That is what I tell myself. This consolation is different than forgiveness; it is a survival tactic. The beast will be the first to nuzzle your face if you have the courage to squat down and look her in the eyes.
I grab her leash made of braided Kevlar rope and clip it onto her harness. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. I pet her nose and she closes her eyes as if she’s receiving a spa treatment. She drags me up the stairs where I pause at the front door where I pause to put on my winter jacket, gloves, and boots. The beast looks back and forth between me and the doorknob. I imagine she’s thinking something like, If you don’t hurry up, I’m gonna leave without you.
“Hold on a second, will you?” I laugh, dropping the leash to retrieve my phone from the kitchen. I’m not sure why I get my phone. The owner of a beast must live a solitary existence, or else he risks losing his beast. Then, of course, he would have no excuse for his behavior.
Outside, it is lightly snowing and the flakes look like salt on the beast’s dark fur as she sniffs a pine cone. At first, she despised the cold, as it goes against her very nature, but now I think she enjoys knowing she’s not the only thing that bites. I tell her how beautiful she is, and I mean it. More than I’ve ever meant it. She looks back to check that I’m still there then treks forward on her quest. I look to check that the shadows are still there, then proceed on my own quest. My path is always intertwined with the beast’s; we head in the same direction, but a few steps apart.
Ever since I moved up to the mountains, it’s been easier to hide the beast. No one lives within two miles of me. Now I can take her for walks whenever I want. When I lived in town, everyone had had long necks and binocular eyeballs. The only time it was safe to take her out was between three and five in the morning, and it was really to just let her pee and roll around in the grass, to let her remember herself, the world, and her place in it. Those moments were nerve-racking, though, and I’d kept my hood up as if I were conducting an illicit drug deal. Losing her wasn’t an option. It still isn’t. It never will be.
I wonder where Ava is now. Is she taking care of someone else? Is her ocean hair splayed over another man’s chest as she kisses his stomach? We had moments of bliss, didn’t we? Kissing over a game of checkers in the coffee shop; dancing in the kitchen, her cheek pressed against mine, the scent of her vanilla cardamom perfume tickling my nose; watching her favorite sci-fi film, the weight of her head resting on my shoulder back when I’d thought we were just friends, that thrilling injection of hope. I treated her well until I didn’t.
“You are good. You are so good,” she used to whisper in my ear and every muscle in my body tightening as I thought about the beast attempting to gnaw her own paw off. I wanted to take her to the beast, show her what she was up against, but Ava refused to believe in something she could not see. The beast thrashed and cried, demanding my undivided attention, and I tried to drown out the noise, but it’s impossible to ignore the truth. Ava had made herself into a cozy home and told me to take off my shoes, to stay a while. Despite the love I thought I felt, I was only looking for something bare-bones and short-term. She said that was okay, that she would wait until I was ready, but I never was.
Now I slide one of my gloves off and pull out my phone. I know that I shouldn’t message her, but I feel compelled, controlled by a puppeteer tugging on my invisible strings. I want to ensure that she never forgets me, never fully recovers from her run-in with the beast.
“I hope that you’re happy. I really do wish you the best.” I click send and avoid eye contact with the beast. She jumps up against my chest, resting her front paws on my shoulders. The beast can tell when I’m being dishonest. She can smell the lies between my synapses. The beast is right; I don’t hope Ava is happy and I sure as hell don’t wish her the best. This is what frightens me the most about myself.
The beast’s paws are wet with snow and her teeth happily chatter a few inches from my face. I place my gloved hands over her paws, in an attempt to warm them, and she nuzzles my neck until my skin goes numb. All around us, sugar pine seeds fall from the towering trees, creating new men.