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Excerpt for Bone Sliding by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Bone

Sliding


A Novel by

Anders Flagstad


Smashwords Edition


Bubble Eyes Publishing

San Diego, CA

www.BubbleEyesPublishing.com



www.AndersFlagstad.com


Copyright 2018 Anders Flagstad

Copyright 2018 Kenneth Anderson

All rights reserved.


ISBN: 978-1-370-78034-1

(Smashwords)



Published by BubbleEyes Publishing at Smashwords

(this book is available in print at most online retailers)


Illustrations and Design by K.P. Anderson


For N.I.B.


Smashwords Edtion, License Notes

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FRONTISPIECE




They stayed that way for some time. In a gold-white sack of light in the middle of the night, Jim standing, Daniel watching, his father breathing.

Jim stared at his father’s hand, gripping his. It was beautiful. Clear pink skin, translucent over hard bone, it was a miracle of fragile unbreakability. That was his father’s hand. His father used to look at his hands and ask Jim – how did I end up with an old man’s hands? – these aren’t my hands. But they were. He’d earned them. Year by year. Jim could feel all five fingers, the bones of his father’s fingers, holding onto the bones of his. They weren’t going to let go. None of them were. He looked and understood he couldn’t tell where his father’s hands left off and his own began. And that was fine. They were all the same hands, anyways. The same flesh. They always had been. They still were. They always would be. Nothing about that was going to change. Nothing ever changes.

It was good.

Jim blinked and thought and he was surprised again.

It was good.

He hadn’t expected that.


from Chapter 62, Yearning



CONTENTS


Novel

About the Author



0

BEFORE


You know the feeling. It’s a bad feeling.

Being.

It’s confusing.

Then it gets worse.

Being.

Pleasures land on your front doorstep in fat, juicy parcels, so reliably, one after another, you don’t even bother unwrapping them, let alone pick them up. Then, one day, you find steaming piles of pain and boredom deposited instead, and you wish you’d owned a different doorstep and you wonder, you have to ask – is there a reason behind all this?

Being.

There’s no sense to it. What’s the cause and effect of it? Where’s the justice in it? How do its rewards and punishments work? And why? You ask why. Nobody gives you an answer.

There’s no neat system of pluses and minuses. No equals sign giving you what you deserve. No tools. None that you can see. Or use. You end up un-asking the questions.

Being.

As long as you’re here, and you are still here, maybe while you’re asking and un-asking these questions, maybe you can practice something else. A new skill. A pastime. A kind of hobby. Like… Maybe… Love. It’s something to do. As long as you’re here. And you’re still here. Who knows? Maybe questions weren’t the reason we were here. Or answers.

It’s confusing.

Being.

You know the feeling. It’s a bad feeling.


1

CLICK


You know the feeling. It’s a bad feeling. As if your flesh had come unhooked from your bones and your body was sliding right off your skeleton to fall – kerplunk! – as limp and shapeless on the floor as a shower curtain ripped off its rings. That’s how Paul felt. All the time. He was tired of it. He hated it. First and foremost., as his dad would say.

A bad feeling.

It was almost as bad as when he felt his skin snapping back into place. Falling on top of his skeleton, draping over his skull, dropping over his shoulder blades, sliding onto his arm bones, cascading down around his leg bones... click! – click! – click! – fastening onto his many foot bones, everything almost hooking onto where it should be, flesh nearly back in its right place, but not quite, brother, not even close.

Almost normal.

You know, brother, that was an even worst feeling.

Then getting ripped off shapeless again. Falling on the floor.

No, brother, that was the worst feeling.

No, it was all bad. It was all the worst. It got so a guy even forgot his own name. Was he really Paul? Who was Paul? If he wasn’t Paul, who was asking the question?

Feelings.

Why was it so complicated?

Then it would start again.

Those feelings.

Off. On. Off On. Anyways. You get it.

Paul hated it. If that’s who he was. Paul? Paul? Yeah, it didn’t sound right somehow. But that was crazy talk, right? Or does everyone feel that way? Anyways, whoever he was, his insides felt bunched and wrinkled. His mind felt as if it were an un-ironed shirt. And who wants a life as an un-ironed shirt?

Yeah, we’ve all been through it, right? Brother? Right? Well, Paul was sick of it. And he wasn’t going to do it anymore.

When you can’t even trust your own body, when you can’t even feel comfortable in your own skin, well, brother, it’s time for some serious thinking, some serious decision making. Enough was enough. And Paul had definitely had enough.

Paul was young. Maybe a little impetuous. Maybe he didn’t think before he spoke sometimes. He was young – what could he say? He wished, he asked the Universe – get me out of this body – and sometimes brother, sometimes, you’ve got to be careful what you ask for.


2

ALMOST


Paul began coughing.

No, gagging, gasping was more like it.

He was lying down. In the snow. It had almost been peaceful. Until the car started up. The rusty exhaust pipe of the Model B he was lying beneath cleared its throat, then noisily belched woolly clouds of poisonous gas directly into his mouth and nose. He hadn’t thought about that. You know, it had been all Paul could do to spit the gravel and ice out of his mouth when the car’s rear tires started spinning. The tires chewed the powder up and cheerfully piled it, neat and tidy, onto his frost-bitten face. It was a pretty deep pile. It hurt. He hadn’t thought about that either. Yeah, he blinked and spit a lot.

Paul was waiting for the car to slip and slide. It had been skating all over the road, all morning long, and of course, now that Paul was lying in back of it, it didn’t want to slip an inch in any direction whatsoever. It stayed put and spun.

Paul was lying and waiting because he wanted the car to jump backwards and ride up on top of his body and roll all its ungainly, cast-iron heaviness over Paul’s soft, squishy parts. He calculated the right rear tire would hit him in his head, above his nose, if he didn’t move. Yup, that should do it. It should crush the life right out of him. The trick was not to move. He was more frightened than he thought he would be. You’d think he hadn’t done this before. He was sure he had. Or had he? Did any of that make sense? He had another coughing fit. Maybe it was going to asphyxiate him first, instead. Well, brother, either way… Whatever it takes to get the job done. He coughed some more. Spit. He squinted his eyes. He kept on spitting. The car kept on shoveling snow at his face. Somebody kicked him. In the ribs. Right in the center of his heavy wool coat. Then he felt the sole of a shoe on his forehead.

He opened one eye. Not a shoe, a boot. It was Zeke’s boot – well, one of Zeke’s dad’s boots, Zeke was in them now. Zeke had borrowed this pair since he didn’t have a pair of his own. Another one of Zeke’s brothers had borrowed Zeke’s heavy leather boots a week ago, to help out an elderly uncle on an elderly farm out in the middle of nowhere, and they hadn’t found their way home yet from North Dakota. These, the ones on Zeke’s big oversized feet, they must have been made of even heavier leather, they were the Sherman Tanks of boots, military grade, and they surely had something akin to torpedo metal encasing the toes.

Yeah. All Paul knew was – they hurt. Yup. When used correctly. And the boots were being used by an expert. Zeke, at present. To be precise.

“Cut the engine Stan. Our boy here, he’s asleep. You asleep, chump?”

“No.”

“No? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“No.”

“O.K., Paul, I give up. No, what? What do you think you’re doing, you numbskull? Someone could get hurt lying in back of a car getting itself unstuck from a snowdrift. You pushing it with your nose?”

Paul didn’t answer that.

But Zeke didn’t go away.

After the engine slowed and the tires stopped, it got quiet, quick. Paul could see all this wasn’t going to work, not as planned. He opened his other eye. He had a great view of worn rubber tread. You know, it never worked out the way you thought it would. It was never easy. It felt as if he’d done this before. Had he? The spitting, the boot tread and everything? How many times had he done this? How would he know? The bottom of the boot rubbed back and forth on Paul’s forehead.

“Or didn’t you think of that, Paul? Getting hurt? Getting killed? Or were you thinking at all? What’s going on, brother?”

Zeke was giving Paul a strange look, halfway between a frown and a smile. The two expressions were fighting each other across his face. It was a fascinating battle to watch. The engine stopped. The frown won. The exhaust pipe wheezed, gave a final burp and settled into silence. He could hear a car door open, and Stan squeaking through the snow, plowing towards the two of them. It must be pretty cold out. The snow screamed it at every step. Yeah, even the icicles on his eyelashes had icicles. The engine exhaust had been warm though.

“What’s he doing, Zeke?”

“No idea, brother.”

“I’m checking the tires guys.”

“He’s checking the tires, Stan.”

“Checking the tires. Now who woulda thought of that?”

Stan looked down at Paul. Zeke looked down at Paul. Paul looked up at Zeke and Stan. It hit Paul they were waiting for him to say something else. O.K. Great. Say something, Paully.

“C’mon guys. What did you think I was doing?”

Paul propped himself up on one of his elbows and turned his head around. This was ridiculous. He couldn’t even get himself run over. In a blizzard. Behind a car. He coughed and blinked snow out of his eyes. His eyes had been aching, rolling them backwards to look up at his two best friends standing upside down in back of him. He hadn’t been making much sense of the expressions on their upside-down faces. But, right-side up, the expressions became even stranger. Anger? Love? Betrayal? He almost laughed, they looked so comical. Then he felt like crying. Man! Why was it always so hard? In the end, Paul kept his face carefully blank. Or he thought he did. Who knew what was on his face? Who knew what was going on behind his face? Certainly not Paul. Life was a lot like riding a crazy merry-go-round, lately. Lots of motion... Always in a circle... Never getting anywhere… None of it meaning anything… The whole thing starting over… Around and around and…

Zeke and Stan looked at each other. Something unreadable passed between them. Or nothing passed between them. Paul could never tell. He could never figure out what they were thinking. They always surprised him.

“We don’t know what you’re doing, Paully” said Zeke.

There was a moment of silence for the three of them to take that in.

“And the truth of it is, brother,” said Stan “we don’t give a hoot anyways. So. Get the heck up and help us this time, the tires are fine. You get this bucket of bolts rolling forward again. O.K.? No more funny business, Paully, yes? Entendu?”

Stan looked over at Zeke again. They did that look/non-look thing again.

Stan grew up speaking French at home, he only mixed it up, speaking the Franglais, with his family and his best friends. He was trying to help Paul. He was treating Paul as family. Paul saw it. Paul understood it. Paul didn’t want that kind of help though, just now. He didn’t know what he wanted. This was all so wrong.

“Paully?”

“Paully?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Stan gave Paul his “I’m serious” look, wide eyes, raised eyebrows, the whole shebang.

Zeke looked at Stan. “He doesn’t get it.” Zeke acted as if he were going to kick Paul again. He smiled as he did it. But it wasn’t a very convincing Zeke-smile. Zeke kicked the snow, and Paul danced up and out of the way, acting as if he’d expected to be kicked. Zeke pretended to kick Paul again, but at the last minute wrestled Paul down to his knees, not kidding, this time for real. Zeke was on the wrestling team. He was big. He knew how to get your cooperation, in a wrestling-way. Paul knew from experience. He was on the team too. Zeke easily and efficiently got Paul in his signature, inescapable head lock. Zeke was laughing. Now, this time, his smile was real. Paul was sure of it. Some hardness in Paul’s chest slipped, melted into liquid, drained away through holes in his leaky soul, and suddenly Paul wanted to stay here. He wanted to stay. He didn’t want to make his final exit. He wanted to be here. With these guys. Now. He wanted it. Where did all these feelings come from?

Stan went down on one knee and grabbed Paul’s head-locked head with both of his well-mittened hands. He quickly ripped off Paul’s cap, quickly tore off his own right mitten, and rapidly rubbed his knuckles painfully over Paul’s head, back and forth, through Paul’s thick red hair. It was freezing out, below freezing. Stan could only do it (mercifully) for a few seconds, before flesh would start getting frostbit. But it still hurt. Like a son-of-a-gun. It hurt. But it was a good kind of hurt. Did that make sense? If you were alive, you hurt.

“You’re a crazy kid, Paully Olsen. You know that?”


3

CLICK


Out of the sides of his eye, Paul saw the penguins again.

Watching him. Silent as usual. Waist-high, silk-bright white torsos with lemon yellow mufflers and Fred Astaire formal coats, they usually stood politely to one side and surreptitiously followed Paul’s movements with bored, expectant eyes and stoically hunched shoulders. The acted as if they were doing Paul a favor. At great personal cost to themselves.

Paul felt as if he were being scrutinized by any number of midget Winston Churchills. No pressure. Merely prime ministers watching you, Paully. Be yourself. Act natural. You know. As if they weren’t here. So, Paul ignored them. Elaborately. He always did. Everyone else ignored them too, acted as if they weren’t there. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Paul accidentally glanced at one, it caught Paul’s attention between knuckle-rubbings, as it flapped its wings slightly and shuffled its big fluffy feet. Did he hear it sighing? Was that a yawn? Don’t look, Paul. Look up. Look at Stan.

Why was it always so hard?


4

BURIED


Paul wanted to die.

Yeah. For as long as he could remember. Well, that wasn’t true, not exactly. He couldn’t remember very far back.

He felt as if he were a deck of cards, each card a life, and he could remember different people, guys, girls, different places, cities, farms, deserts, mountains, but nothing very clearly, nothing you could put your finger on and say – this happened to me, I was there, I know. He couldn’t tell if he’d lived it, or if someone had told him about it, or if he’d read about it someplace. He was always looking at himself from somewhere way far away. Floating above it all. Where it was safe. Did everyone feel this way? He wanted to ask somebody if all that sounded strange. But he didn’t. Did that make Paul a coward? He didn’t know. He couldn’t tell.

He had asked his gym teacher once though, about reincarnation.

Mr. Andrietti. A well-muscled fireplug of discipline and optimism. Paul liked him because he was short like Paul. At one point, during wrestling practice last fall, Mr. A. had shown the team something called “yoogah” and taught them how to tie themselves into pretzels. No one could. But they continued to try, pulling on their bones to make their teenage bodes as supple as rubber bands, imitating pigeons and dogs and frogs and plants. It felt good. And, yeah, it seemed to help in the wrestling department. But it was a crazy way to start practice.

Mr. A. was also a very inspiring speaker. He practiced endless variety in his motivational talks to the male teenagers under his wrestling supervision. Mr. A. had added smiling elephant-headed gods, and fourteen-armed dancers and remembering past lives to the rest of his encouraging banter as they huffed and groaned through their partially successful stretches and Paul had asked him once, after practice, if Mr. A. thought it was true – could you remember past lives? For real? Mr. A. had smiled and shook his head and slapped Paul on the back – “just you keep your weight down and concentrate on the Bakers Falls match next week. O.K., Mr. Olsen? That should be enough to handle.”

Was that a yes?

Or a no?

But it didn’t matter, because Paul would always end up hurting, in the end. Life hurt. And really, boy, did it, scout’s honor. It hurt bad. But that meant you were alive, right?

Maybe. But he still wanted to kill himself. It hurt too much, he hurt other people too much, there were a lot of reasons. Good reasons too.

He’d thought about it. A lot. Anyone would say the same. It was common sense. If it got to be too much you made a change. Simple. He’d say so to anyone. If anyone would listen. Of course no one would. Well, Paul didn’t ever bring it up. So, Paul supposed, they couldn’t listen, right, if you never brought it up?

Wrong. They could bring it up. They could ask. No one asked Paul, did they? No, they didn’t. No one asked him what was going on. No one asked him why he was so quiet. Time for a change, Paully. No more waiting. He was scared, yeah, who wouldn’t be? He was scared but he’d decided. It was going to be today.

This was his last day on earth.

If this was his last day, why did it seem so familiar? How many last days can one guy have? Had he done this before? How could he know? Did he want to know? It was all so messed up.

Part of him was happy. Part was sad. Part needed to throw up. Would he be man enough to do it? And how would he do it?

Being polite and wanting to be a good Norwegian, he couldn’t leave a mess, be loud, or draw too much attention to himself. That was a problem. The violence, the self-murder, that wasn’t a problem. He lived in a violent age, if he didn’t do it, the war probably would. No, it was a puzzle, wasn’t it? Erasing yourself without causing a fuss. How did a guy do it?

And leaving all that love behind. People are the thing. People are important. Paul knew it as a certainty, as obvious to him as gravity, or his lazy, numbed fingers, or the ice in the wind trying to chap the face off his skull, or the knuckles grinding away at his hair. Yes, love was another problem. Love was obvious. You didn’t question the obvious. It was love, stupid. It was why we’re here. People. Love. People and love.

Yeah, love was the thing. It was it. And Paul wanted to forget all about it. How messed up was that? Paul was too messed up to be here. He needed to exit. Love made him want to stay. Paul wanted to go. Paul wanted love to let him go. But no. Love seemed to have a different opinion on the question. Love pulled on him. Love whispered to him. Promises. Lies were more like it. Why did love make things so complicated? It was always so hard.

And you didn’t waste love. You spread it around. Paul had love around him, but he was really bad at giving love to others. He admitted it. Just ask his friends, his family. No one knew what to do with him.

It was time to go. And now, Paul wished he had more time. More time to learn to love better. Or to forget. To forget how to love at all. Forget love entirely. Yeah. Maybe he needed time to forget.

That didn’t even make sense. Paul had no idea what he was talking about. None.

You know, brother, it all sounded so hokey when you tried to talk about it.

Yeah, Paul never tried to talk about it. How would a guy even start? He wouldn’t. Not a normal guy. Paul was hollow inside. Other people had innards. He had empty space. Empty spaces didn’t have much to talk about, did they? They were filled, these empty spaces, with all this junk about love. It wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t a normal guy. He wasn’t. That was the thing. That was always the thing. Right?


5

CONSCIOUS


“Push, Paully. Now” said Zeke, yelling, passenger door open, leaning on the car frame, beating his big meaty left hand on the roof of the car and laughing, all in rhythm, all at the same time. That was Zeke. Paul would miss Zeke. Stan was back at the wheel. Pumping the gas like the wild man he was. Stan! He’d miss Stan too. Would they miss him? The car jerked in time to Zeke’s pounding and Stan’s pumping. Paul was behind the car, again, trying to encourage movement in the Model B, as it bounced and jittered in front of him. Snow fell in tight, self-important spirals around him. Even though he was the smallest of the three, they’d let him do the heaviest pushing. Same as any normal guy. They were being nice to him. That had to count for something, right? Right?

“You call that pushing, Paully?” said Zeke.

“Did you tell him to push, Zeke?”

“What do you think? I told him.”

“Does he still have his skis on?”

“I don’t see no skis.”

“Well, we’re not moving. Is he lying down again?”

“You lying down, Paully?”

“I think he’s lying down, Zeke.”

They could see him. They knew. Paul shook his head, pressed his shoulder to the boxy back of the Model B and grunted and pushed, let up and pushed again. Paul looked out over the silent fields. Snow flurries were a solid curtain now. Wind was blowing. Drifts were getting deep. He exhaled clouds of steam. He must look as if he were a Paul-sized musk ox. Butt-heading a black rock that refused to budge. A National Geographic photograph. Of deepest Alaska. Or furthest Siberia. The penguins were still observing him, huddled under a young pine tree by the side of the road, shuffling in the powdery snow and staring straight ahead through the branches. Paul looked up, shocked, when the car unexpectedly surged forwards and leaped up and out of the drift. Guess he could push after all. Oh. Wait. Zeke was beside him. He’d snuck back.

“That’s how you push, Paully” said Zeke. “Use your big Swedish muscles and your superior Swedish brains. Like me. Oh. I forgot. You’re Norwegian. My condolences.”

It took a few minutes for Paul to find his skis. They were missing. Gone AWOL. Angled in a drainage culvert, completely covered in white, frozen fluff as if they were Christmas cookies and the snow powdered sugar. Cookies. Sugar. He heard noises way underneath his layers of jacket and sweater. Boy, that made a guy hungry. Paully! Why would you be hungry? You’re not supposed to be coming home tonight. Ever. Never again. Hungry is for the living. Not for you. Not for the skiing dead.

Paul’s stomach rumbled anyway, as if it didn’t care. O.K., yeah, sure he was hungry, what the heck! And he knew exactly what to do. He reached inside his jacket pocket. Pulled out a brown and blue bottle. Liquid bread. Schmidt’s best. The beer wasn’t frozen. Yet. He found his can opener. He’d remembered to bring that along, at least. He wasn’t entirely useless, huh? It took another minute or so to get himself set up, between chugs, and get the rope re-tied back onto the bumper. He jerked on the rope to let them know he was ready.

Now it was time to fly. Flying: it was the reason they were out here on a Saturday morning (afternoon actually), on January 1st, while everyone else was home eating aspirin and drinking seltzer and generally recuperating and recovering from last night’s extravagances. O.K., yeah, sure, Minnesota was flat. Skiing should be horrible. But the way the three of them saw it, that was the point of it. Sure it was flat, but it was flat with ditches. It had flat roads which were for speeding, and drainage ditches which were for jumping, and any fool with half a brain could see where that argument was heading. Obviously, the point of all this flatness was flight. Skiing. Speeding. Jumping. Freedom. Flight.

So, Stan and Zeke had let him go again, a third time now, they’d let him ski even though it wasn’t his turn. Yeah, they were being nice to him. He didn’t know what to think about that.

Darn.

This was messed up.

Nope, he didn’t want to think about it.

He waited with the rope in his hand. He jerked it again. They still didn’t move. Zeke and Stan were deep in discussion, heads down, in the front seat of the Model B. What were they talking about? About him? A minute later, two more beers flew back over the top of the Model B. Oh. That’s what they were talking about. The bottles barely missed his head. Paul smiled, for them, for the beer, for the extra turns at skiing, but they didn’t see him doing it. Paul quickly found a place for the two bottles in his inside jacket pockets. He jerked the rope. The car roared into life. They inched forward. Paul looked up at the sky. So empty.

For a moment he’d felt excited. For a moment everything had made sense. He’d felt himself filling up a little. The hollowness relenting. His body settling back on his shoulders, skin settling back into place, all the wrinkles unwrinkling. Now he was empty again. Just a bony superstructure on skis. A space where there should have been a boy. It shouldn’t be this hard, brother, it just shouldn’t.


6

CLICK


His chest hurt.

Paul felt dizzy and he couldn’t breathe, not correctly. He heard music in the wind, only there wasn’t any wind. Paul could hear someone gasping, throat rasping, nearby. He blinked. He was lying down. On his face. Flat rocks a screaming candy corn orange, skies a rusty sugar red, and a blueberry sun floating on the horizon. He wasn’t thirsty. He wasn’t hungry. He wasn’t cold. He wasn’t warm either. He was scared, though. This had all happened a long, long time ago, right? It was hard to remember sometimes. He blinked again.

The cold hit his eyeballs as if it were trying to pry them out of his head, and he had to blink a couple of times before they were warm enough for him to see the Model B’s bumper ahead of him. He looked around. The penguins were gone. He was moving across the snow. Slowly. His skis made creaking sounds in the snow. Yeah, way below zero. The tires weren’t getting much to grip on either. They (Paul, the rope and the car) moved forwards in random jerks and tugs. Zeke hung out of the passenger window, beating the car top, trying to encourage the machine to sprint. It wasn’t working. Zeke leaned further and further out. Anybody would say Zeke was crazy. Anybody would be right. Paul smiled. No one saw. Not Zeke. Not Stan. Not the penguins. Nobody.


7

DISCOMFORT


His chest hurt.

That had started up six months ago. No, longer. Maybe the middle of his Junior year. It was hard to remember sometimes. Maybe after the penguins came. Maybe before.

So. Yeah, there was this ache in his chest. He wasn’t complaining. He hurt. Why? No idea, brother. Did it matter? He hurt in a gentle, bittersweet, both-arms-and-legs-ripped-off-and-your-intestines-pulled-inside-out-through-your-butthole kind of way. He hated himself. He was such a disappointment to everyone and everything. His father, his teachers, his family, his friends. A big zero. He hurt all the time. He’d like to meet the guy who would want to live this way. He wondered why no one else noticed it, him dragging his raw insides outside, trailing them behind him, moist and bleeding and caked with filth, pulling them behind him everywhere he went. Did they really see him when they saw him? The important thing, apparently, was to act normal. Normal was a problem for Paul. It was a big problem.

He’d planned on doing himself in before Christmas, but Christmas day had come and gone and here he was. Still here. Still hopeless. Man! His chest hurt. It kind of felt good, though. At least it was familiar. It was constant. He could count on it. He was twisted, he was a mess, huh? Afraid of death. Afraid of life. Being a teenager wasn’t supposed to hurt this hard. It wasn’t fair. And Paul hadn’t asked for any of this. Stop whining Paul. It doesn’t help. Think about something else. Think about something pleasant. Look at the snow Paul. Look at the trees. You should be grateful, Paul. Lots of people have it worse than you, Paul.

The car bounded forwards. Slid left. Slid right. Zeke banged on the roof. Paul blinked a lot and clenched and clutched at the rope. You could walk faster than they were moving.

The blackness hit especially hard in the evening. It fell on him, more and more, a physical blanket thing, a feeling, maybe how a sodden, rubberized Hudson Bay blanket would feel if it were an emotion – wildly heavy, puncture-proof, watertight and insupportable. Blackness came for him and covered and smothered him. It dizzied him. It competed with him for air, it seeped into his head and his lungs and heart and solidified, cement-hard. Paul was tired of it He was helpless. Paul hated that. He was a little kid again, a toddler, locked in a broken-down basement, maybe under an abandoned church, windowless, broken glass, rusty nails, dark, cold, wet, stinking with mold, full of so many sharp, unpleasant things that cunningly sought his soft unprotected parts and cut him when he wasn’t looking.

Nice Paul.

Now, is that any way to live?

Don’t even answer.

He was alone. Well, he and the blackness, they were alone together.

And he knew. He and the blackness both knew. The blackness, it wanted to shut him up. Forever. It would never let him win, it would never fight fair, it would never give up. Never.

Never.

Remember that, Paul.

So it had to be today.

Yeah, he’d decided.

There weren’t any cliffs near his home. He didn’t have a gun. But he did have an automobile handy. Kind of. Zeke’s dad’s. He’d get himself run over. Have an accident. Minimum fuss. Maximum effect. He’d decided. He only hoped, looking at his friends in the front seat of the Model B, that he didn’t get them into any trouble. He was a Minnesotan after all. You don’t cause trouble. You don’t cause a fuss. People’s lives were hard enough as it is. There was a depression on, for Pete’s sake. No need to make it worse, huh?

You know, he’d miss them both, Stan and Zeke. Had he ever told them that?


8

EXHALE


Yeah, the blackness always won.

Except, when it didn’t.

Sometimes doors unlocked, windows unlatched, fevers broke and sunrises rose, lights flooded, sunsets flashed, horizons folded and nights opened, they widened, spread and sang, and stars sprinkled and sparked above Paul’s head, and yeah, galaxies and nebulae bloomed bright over his bright hair as would tightly wound buds of a night-blooming flowers, and Paul’s mind would shred in pleasure beneath it all and Paul would change. Those were the good times, brother, they were the best times. The darkness? It was a joke, he couldn’t even remember it. The soft night burned, everything shifted, melted, flowed and Paul exhaled himself upwards, through his own ears, through his own nostrils, blown softly about on soft winds upwards, drifting into expanding nights, soaring through humid, blood-hot skies, enjoying his soul’s summer shamelessly, and Paul would also find, trembling and amazed and somewhat disgusted, that he was happy. He was himself again. He was Paul. Just Paul.

And he was happy.

Again.

Nothing like that feeling, brother.

That was how it felt. Sometimes.

Maybe a Minnesotan boy wouldn’t describe it exactly that way to another Minnesotan boy. But who cared? It still felt good. When the blackness lifted, he admitted it, it felt good.

The experience made it very hard to plan your own suicide, though.

Life and love are strong things. They didn’t fight fair. And they fought back when you hit them. They’d punch you when you weren’t looking. Love wasn’t polite. Paul was learning that. Yup.

The car had by now, picked up a little speed. It still jerked. It still slipped. But it went forwards more than any other direction. Faster. And faster. And faster.

Almost like…

Flying.

Paul saw Zeke and Stan look back at him, one on each side of the car, laughing and hooting as the three of them hot-footed it through more and deeper drifts in their B-mobile and Paul loved those guys. Yeah, he loved them. Suddenly his face felt hot. He felt full. He felt the opposite of empty.

And he was here again. He was Paul again.

When it happened, like now, he was Paul Olsen, average guy, first trumpet in the band, red-haired, small for his age, a tortoise-shell-eyeglass-wearing, decent-tennis-playing, wannabe wrestler, girl-dating, brother of four sisters, typical modern Minnesotan Red River High School senior, Class of 1944. He was himself. Once again. He could breathe. He could walk. He could talk. It was glorious. It was heaven. He could move about as if the blackness didn’t exist, because, brother, believe this, it didn’t. Not for Paul Olsen. Not then. Not now. Not in any manner, shape or form, brother.

He didn’t care. About blackness, about anything. He couldn’t help it. He just didn’t. He was seventeen, he was alive, and he didn’t give a fig what anyone thought of him, or what the rotten future might hold for him, or even that he was trying to off himself today. He was here. He knew who he was. He was himself. He didn’t care. That was all that mattered.

Remember this, Paul, remember this feeling. This one time, remember.

But he never did.


9

FLOATING


“Yeah! Fly, boys, fly!”

Paul war-whooped upwards, yelled at low-hanging masses of snow-clouds, howled his lungs out into cautious, lurking flurries and hesitating, curious squalls. He wasn’t suspicious. He wasn’t hesitating. He wanted to mark this afternoon. It was his. All his. He wanted people to know Paul Olsen was alive and Paul Olsen was here and he owned this.

The Model B ahead of him jumped its tracks, spun its wheels in the powder, fishtailed, sprayed snow at Paul’s face. Paul laughed, he ducked. The car fought Paul. He fought back. It tried to get free of him – a big, fat, black lake trout caught on a hook and unhappy about it – but Paul wouldn’t let it. It was his. He’d landed it. Or maybe it had landed him. Yes, Paul was tied to the car’s rear bumper (well, holding the rope, tied to the bumper). He was strapped in on Stan’s old cross-country skis. He was being pulled at a ridiculous rate of speed, and, as a result, screaming his hot breath out at all of Minnesota and everything this morning. But it was his choice. He was here. He was doing it. No one else.

“Yeah! Gun it, boys. Floor it!”

He bent his knees, balanced himself, the car accelerated. He didn’t care. He didn’t care what he felt like or what he looked like. Yeah he had a cold. His nose dripped. It had frozen all over his face already (it was January what did he expect?) and managed to cover his fuzzily frozen, green wool muffler too. Didn’t matter. Paul was busy, man. His skis whispered to him, guaranteeing him speed, frenzy, peril. Yeah, maybe he’d get hurt. What of it, brother? Winter Minnesota (not to be confused with its gorgeous twin sister, Summer Minnesota) flew by him, on both sides of his head – too beautiful to explain, too deep an emotion to talk about. If you were trying to describe it, you weren’t feeling it. Paul was definitely feeling it, brother. Almost. He felt something. He felt.

“Yeah!”

That was a start, wasn’t it? He was in the middle of it. It was here. It was now. Paul was in the center. Of something. Of what, though? What had really changed, Paul? Just stop it, Paul. Let go. Get your kicks. While you’re here. Be here. Be.

He could see every single needle on every single pine tree. The snow had stopped for a minute. The air was so clear and so cold, the light was a uniform, fluorescent, phosphorescent white, and he was skiing in the center of it, over a pearl, bobbing in cream, inside a white marble bowl, sliding on a cloud. It was clean and it was pure, and his body knew it. Paul wanted his body to know. He could feel every hair on his faint, but manly, red moustache standing erect on his upper lip in the frost. He could feel his life inside of him, erect, aware, watching. He could feel Paul Olsen being alive. He could feel it. He was alive.

“Yeah! Faster, Stan, faster!”

Stan couldn’t hear him over the motor. But what the heck! Nothing mattered. Zeke was still hanging out of the car. Banging on the top. Face in the wind. A dog out for a car ride. Zeke was crazy.

Paul tried to forget, then he did forget, then he forgot he was forgetting.

“Yeah! Yeah, brother!”

Paul flew across the deep, long-waved snow the way a jap Zero flies over the deep, long-waved Pacific – barreling, skimming, strafing, climbing, stalling, dropping, turning, dipping, diving. He crashed up the side of drainage ditches, slammed down the other side of entrance roads, pounded the ground and burst snowbanks. He dodged fence posts, grazed mailboxes and floated over snow-drifted lumps of various sizes and shapes, lumps that could’ve been anything and everything and easily could’ve ripped him apart. But did he care? Dumb question. He was Paul Olsen. And Paul was free.

The responsible voices in his head were too appalled, too disgusted watching from the inside of his eyeballs to protest as the landscape peeled by them at dive-bomber speeds. That was the price they paid. For being residents of Paul’s head.

“Yippee-tai-yay!”


10

GRAVITY


The rope felt stiff and moody. He pulled on it, but it didn’t want to do much of anything. It sure didn’t want to bend anymore. It was getting colder. Paul was turning into a guy-sized ice cube frozen onto the end of a frozen rope. His feet were icy lumps. He could use some heat right about now. He tried jumping up and down on his skis as he whooshed through the Minnesota landscape.

Paul was moving, moving pretty good now. The wind was brutal. He chanced it one-handed to pull his scarf tighter around his head and nearly flipped head over heels. Not the smartest move, Paully. The car was plowing ahead. Paul was plowing behind. They were on a straightaway. He could see two ski caps leaning towards each other through the frost-covered windows of the car. Were they laughing? Was that music he heard? Why did he feel so scared? He kept his eyes on Stan and Zeke and missed the intersection they were crossing.

“Guys! Hey fatheads!”

He jumped the road, which was fun. When he hit the snow again, on the other side, Paul whipped the rope over an approaching stop sign with one casual, masterful flick. When that didn’t work, Paul jerked it, then he wiggled it, then he threw it, upwards over his head, frantic, sweating, pretty much disengaging his entire shoulder from its socket. The rope disregarded him, then lazily snapped at Paul, explosively shedding ice and snow, and lifted itself, unenthusiastically, out of harm’s way at the very last minute, at the very last possible second. Paul watched the stop sign disappearing in his peripheral vision. The rope felt less like a rope now and more and more like a woven two-by-four. The bottles in his jacket pockets clinked together. Well, it was more like crashed together. He felt them, more than a little compulsively, to see if they’d smashed and broken. This was feeling more and more like work and less and less like fun

“Guys! Hey Stan! Zeke! Guys!?”

The car locomotived onwards through a drift across the road, the deep powder exploded left and right as if they were motoring through land mines. Bam! Pow! The world was white. Everywhere. He couldn’t tell if he was in the air or on the ground. When the clouds of snow thinned a bit. Paul realized he was sliding sideways. He jumped back into the Model B’s wheel tracks, which wasn’t easy because Paul was a sliding snowdrift at this point. Pinned to the ground. Blankets and drifts of snow attached to his coat and pants. Paul’s eyeglasses boasted miniature drifts. He shook his head to clear them. Nothing happened. He wiped his glasses off with quick jerky movements, bending over, as he didn’t want to let go of the rope, and he slid sideways again. He couldn’t see a thing, for the love of Pete. he let go with one hand. Wiped his face. Smudged his glasses, and the rope saw its chance. It lunged at him, repeatedly. Paul could swear he heard it snarling at him.


11

HEAVY


From somewhere, Paul heard music, definitely, this time, it was a swing band, it was clearer than any radio he’d ever heard before. It was coming from the right. Must be an echo from the car. In the snow? Well, when it got really cold, sound got funny, didn’t it? Sure. How cold was it out here? Jeez! No wonder they couldn’t hear him. They weren’t even listening for him. They were singing along with the radio. Zeke had said the radio was broke. Guess not.

Why would Zeke lie to him?

Was Stan in on it? Of course he was. They did things like that. Without him.

Stop it Paul.

From out of nowhere Paul smelled orange blossoms. His stomach did flip-flops. It was sickening. As if a whole field of orange trees had died in mid-blossom and been stacked upwind from him to rot. The two of them were spritzing perfume all over Zeke’s dad’s Model B? Why? What kind of a party were they having in there? Without Paul? Always without Paul?

Paul’s heart sped way up. Paul’s breathing slowed way down and got shallow. Don’t do this to yourself Paul. Do what? You know what. No, what? Don’t do this Paul.

This wasn’t the blackness. No. It wasn’t going to happen.

The car swerved, slowed down. To avoid what? Paul never knew. Paul jumped out of the way and into another drainage ditch. He moved his lumber-like rope to the left, then to the right. He missed a fence post. Barely. The car sped up. Paul sped up. The music got louder. His eyeglasses were collecting snow again. Dang! He bent his knees to jump back out of the ditch. He pulled back on the petrified rope. He wasn’t sure if he was having fun or not. Was he?


12

CLICK


“Ah! C’mon!”

For a second, Paul heard rain hitting a pane of glass. His forehead was pressed to it. And it was dark. And he was sitting down. Dry. Warm. It smelled dusty. A sharp, tangy tickle in his nostrils. He was crying. A low murmuring rolled under his feet. Bright colored lights blinked next to him. He could hear breathing. In the shadows. At his feet, he thought he could see black beaks and black and white feathers shining back up at him, feathers and matching shiny black-button eyes. The eyes looked amused.


13

INTERMISSION


“Ah! C’mon, guys!”

The car bucked right and threw Paul left into the ditch again. He was O.K, yeah. It was easier to ski here. What were they thinking? The orange junk was still in his nostrils. If it had been a noise it would’ve been deafening. He breathed through his mouth. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. He was a little dizzy. No. He was a lot dizzy. The orange was everywhere. Was he going to start seeing orange again too?

Paul’s stomach was in knots. Not any simple set of slip knots either. A big mother-lovin’ rat’s nest of Stevedore knots. The navy kind, the kind you’d tie a destroyer to a pier with. It was all wrong. He didn’t know what or why. Or even how. But it was wrong. Jeez, it came out of nowhere, brother, all this wacky fear. Not again. Not here. Not now. He was sweating it. He was drowning in it. He was going bonkers, nuts. Was he crying? For the love of Mike! He looked down at his hands, gripping the knotted rope.

The car bounced forwards and slid in front of him, to the left. Paul tried to ease to the right. The rope, frosted and slippery as all get out, bucked and jerked left, in his gloves, again and again and again. It was annoyed – a twisted, kinked up, frozen, irritated anaconda of hemp and it wanted him dead.

Well, he and the rope had that in common. Paul grunted and smiled, to himself, deep behind his muffler and with his neck hunched deeper into his jacket collar. The rope jerked left again and again. Each time, Paul pulled to the right.

Oof da! Paul leaned and put all his weight into it.

He wrestled the rope into temporary submission, and as he did, he asked himself, for the twentieth time – am I having fun? Are you, Paully? Are you?

He thought he saw tuxedoed torpedoes (penguins?) sliding on their bellies in formation on either side of him. The music was deafening. The orange smell wasn’t mixing with his beery breath very well.

Are you having fun, Paully?

He started to glance to his right, to reconnoiter a passing squadron of tuxedos. Just for a split second. That was all. Just to get a glimpse. To make absolutely sure that he, Paul was going completely and utterly nuts. Although he’d, pretty much, figured that out already. Big mistake. He never even got to turn his head.

The rope flipped upwards. It hit him in the face and flew out of his hands. Paul slowed, then came to a stop. The car sped on, rope flying every which way. It was free! Free! The music died down. The stench of decaying orange grove corpses dissipated in the freezing cold, and Paul stood still. It got very, very quiet where Paul was.

He stood in the ditch, stamping his skis to stay warm and clapping his hands and staring straight forward at nothing in particular. He stared for quite a while. O.K. Now what? He pulled a shirt three layers down beneath his jacket to try and clean off his eyeglasses. This time it worked. His eyeglasses had regained their transparency. He could see. He could also wait. So, he waited.

He could feel a big bruise forming on his forehead. Ouch. That hurt. Paul got it. He was alive.

The snow picked up. Then it was all over him. Paul was the only spot of color in his world. And he wasn’t much of a spot of color, as spots go, now was he? No. Snow was attracted to Paul, right out of the air and attached itself quickly and efficiently to Paul’s body as if Paul were a lint brush and the world was a suit coat covered in dog hair. Paul was being erased. He was disappointing as well as disappearing, just another snow-colored object in a snow-colored storm, in a universe of snow. Paul was alone. Paul and universal white and his brand-spanking-new bruise.


14

JUGGLING


He was calm. It surprised him. It frightened him.

They better not lose me out here. They better come back.

Of course they’ll come back. They just have to turn around first. Have to find a wide enough spot in the road to back in and out of. Follow their tire ruts back to me. Follow them and they’ll find me. Easy. Easy as pie. Get to me in no time.

Paul looked down, looked up at the road, watched the wind scour and smooth the snow, erasing the tire tracks, pretty much erasing the road. Stan’s battered, old skis began to disappear under blowing white stuff that tornadoed around him in every direction. The skis were there. Paul saw them. And then they weren’t. It was as if Paul were foot-less, legs ending in stumps in a shallow river of drifting flurries.

They’ll find me. They’ll turn back.

You know, Paul, people disappeared in blizzards. Re-appeared (in a manner of speaking) when drifts melted in the spring.

Then, as his stomach performed a particularly painful contraction, Paul squinted his eyes shut, and in the process realized something. Something obvious. Something important.

Maybe this is my opportunity.

All you have to do is ski into a field, take your clothes off, and lie down. You’ll be gone in minutes. Twenty minutes tops. It was way below zero out here today. Easy. Easy as pie.

O.K.

All you need to do is do it. Get going. Go on Paully. Start skiing. There’s a field. There are your skis.

For some reason, he immediately could see his dad’s face, coming out of the snow. Walking towards him. That couldn’t be right.

“Dad?”

Then it was nothing but white on white sheets of snow and more snow. Vortexing at him. Nothing else.

“Dad?”

This was getting him nowhere, quick.

You know, for the most part, his father was cheerful, soft-spoken, few-worded. People liked him, liked him a lot, he was popular, apparently. Paul wouldn’t know. Paul hardly knew his father. Paul wasn’t complaining. His dad was one of the most responsible men Paul knew about. The Olsens had a roof over their heads, food on the table, gifts under the Christmas tree, all through the depression. They’d even had cars and vacations. But dad was never home. He was a hypothetical. All kinds of things happened that pointed towards a dad existing somewhere near Paul’s house. But his chair at the head of the dining room table was (almost) never sat in. The garage was (usually) empty. His mom had raised the Olsens, all five of them, pretty much on her own. Not that Paul was complaining. No.

And when his father was there, he wasn’t. It was as if his mom had a guest in the house. Whatever room his dad was in, they had to stay out of. And the few times Paul and his father occupied the same physical space, Paul never knew what would get a reaction in his dad. He had no idea. Paul had no idea what his father wanted to teach him about life. Paul would say something, his dad would nod, reading the newspaper, that was that. Then Paul would say something else, the frown lines would manifest on his father’s forehead. His face would fill with a new energy. A puzzled expression would float, pass over his eyes, then his face, eyebrows would lower, lips would twist into a half-smile – a thunder cloud briefly eclipsing the sun – then all of it, all the puzzlement, the eyebrow, lip, forehead motion, all of it would be gone, it would all vanish, and his father’s eyes would be glancing at him again, friendly, but now, empty. He’d be listening to Paul, but Paul wasn’t touching him exactly. Not in a way that counted as touching. Not on the inside. Not anymore. Maybe not ever.

Paul, apparently, was on his own.

Maybe, that’s what his dad was trying to teach him.


15

KAOS


Shouldn’t you be skiing somewhere, Paully?

Shut up, you.

Paul rocked back and forth on his skis, staring upwards at the cone of flakes targeting his face as if they were tracer bullets.

Vaguely he wondered where the penguins were. They seemed to like it when he was upset. They liked to watch.

What kind of bird liked to watch people suffer? That wasn’t right.

Flakes pelted his face.

He closed his eyes. Pointed his face up at the sky anyways.

Dad confused Paul.

Yeah, take, say, that morning, at breakfast.

Paul had told dad, mom, and the girls, he’d joined the Navy. He’d done it, enlisted, months ago, in a fit of responsibility. He figured he’d better say something. At some point. So they didn’t find out later. After he was dead. Since he was going to off himself. He’d better clean things up. It was the responsible thing to do.

Yeah, Paul had been waiting, carefully, cautiously, for the perfect time to break the news to everyone, mom, dad, the sisters, everyone. That time had never come. And then, this morning, it had just slipped out of his mouth, between the oatmeal and the scrambled eggs, before he’d realized he was going to say it. Maybe because it was his Exit Day. Maybe not. Who could tell?

Conversation had stopped, coffee cups had remained suspended in mid-air. Stupidly, Paul had thought people would be proud, pleased. But no. They were silent. Paul didn’t know why. All the guys in his class in High School were doing it. No one had a choice. Everyone knew, everyone understood – you had to enlist or get drafted, that was the way things were – but brother, what a scene! Everyone looked at dad. Dad looked at Paul. Paul felt his face getting red. Dad’s face went blank. A rigid, stony blank. The look of a man getting his legs sawed off with no anesthesia. Then his face went empty. He was encouraging. He was excruciatingly fair. Dad wanted Paul to be happy. If the Navy was what would do it, then Paul should do it. Paul should do what he thinks is right.

Was Paul doing right? Was he? Was he being patriotic and brave? Was he being selfish? Should he be in the army? Like dad was in World War I? In the trenches? Getting gassed? Cutting the dead skin off the soles of his feet with a knife? Or was it a bayonet? Not that his dad ever talked about it. No. He’d learned all about the war, and his dad’s years in it, his losing his nurse sister in France and not even knowing it – all of it – Paul had learned all his dad’s war stories from his uncles. His dad was a big mystery. An absence. Sometimes Paul felt as if he were pretending he had a dad. O.K. Maybe that wasn’t fair to dad. But it wasn’t fair to Paul, either. It wasn’t fair. Paul hated it. He hated himself for hating it. You know, it hurt to think of it, all around, all that hating, and he didn’t want to do it, but Paul couldn’t stop, he couldn’t stop himself.

His dad was never there. O.K. Sure. Paul had to accept that. That was dad. Dad travelled. The state of Minnesota was a big place. Paul’s dad was all over it. Deciding, managing, delegating, impressing, he was a big man in the boardrooms of the Minnesota Dairy Cooperative. Paul was proud of him They all were. All the Olsens. Paul felt guilty about that too. Paul was the only son, but that didn’t mean Paul wanted to go into the dairy coop business himself. Dad never mentioned it. But Paul felt it.

O.K. Sure. Fine. Paul liked butter and milk and all, like any guy would, heck, nothing wrong with that, they were O.K., it was food, dairy coops helped people, they made life better for others, farmers, families, little kids that needed milk, sure, all right, that was all true, Paul couldn’t deny it. But… even so… dad… Paul… well, the truth was… Paul wanted… he wanted… he wanted more.

That was his dirty secret. He wasn’t proud of it. Paul always wanted more. Yeah, that was his problem. He wanted more and more, and even then it was never enough. Getting more made you want more. Wanting more made you get more Then the more you got, the more you wanted. And then you wanted something else too, something else instead. And you got that. And then, more of that. And more and more. And then it all started over again, and you went on and on, and it never stopped, did it? – it was a kind of disease, wasn’t it?

Wanting more? Sure it was. It was a sickness. It wasn’t something a Minnesotan did. You were happy with what you had. You were grateful. A guy should be grateful. But Paul wasn’t.

Paul wished he knew exactly what it was he was wanting so much more of.

And why.

He wanted to know that too.

And he wished he could get enough of it, so he could stop.

This wanting, it was making him crazy. He wanted to stop wanting. Just stop it, Paul. Stop.

Be like dad. His dad wasn’t mooning about, always wanting junk he didn’t have. Paul needed to be like him, like his father.

No.

No, he didn’t want that.

Not like his father.

Paul didn’t want to end up being like his father.

That was another dirty secret of Paul’s. Paul was a mess. An ungrateful bastard. A bad son. A poor friend. An empty boy.

Still, no matter what he was, he didn’t want to be like his father.


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