Since people keep talking about it and asking me, I decided to put up the first chapter. The first taste is free. It may taste like drunk vomit and suicide, but that’s what you get for tasting something I give you. (Seriously, why do you trust me?)
He woke in the half-light before dawn. Always before the sun, always reaching for the alarm before it could fire, feeling around for yesterday’s clothes and dressing in the dark. Silent. He grabbed new socks, didn’t put them on but tucked them in a pocket and stepped soft through the house, past Ed, sprawled naked, half off the couch and snoring where he’d fallen after another bender, pants around one ankle, passed out in a pool of piss and diabetic sweat.
He slipped past the overturned Crown bottle, past the spilled bag of puke, past the knocked down phone, stopping outside the threshold of animated light coming off the TV in her room. He chanced the usual peek before pushing open the door just enough to slide through. Faded, boot-stained, Smurf-blue shag carpet, pocked with burns and scattered clothes. It sank underfoot as he moved silently to her bedside and knelt, gently pulling the burned-down cigarette butt from between her fingers and placing it atop the pile which overflowed the ashtray.
She lay on one shoulder with an arm hanging, head askew, neck twisted, and threatening to fall off the bed, so he lifted her – limp as a corpse and sickeningly light – and set her safely back; propped her head with a pillow and closed her half-seeing eyes with his hand. He pulled the covers back over her scarred, remaining breast and stood to leave but caught; found himself staring at the rubber on her arm.
A pale yellow ribbon turned the limb a cold slate beneath the bruises and holes, the black worms in her skin. He winced, his hand hovering over it, his breath caught in his throat. Finally he yanked it loose and let it drop, slipped out the door as it fell from the crease around her upper arm.
He grabbed his runners on the porch and lifted the heavy wooden door over the frayed carpet. The hinge had been busted for years, the victim of some forgotten, booze-induced misery but he wedged through, hoisted and pulled it shut, and stopped on the steps to rub his feet in the dew-soaked grass, wipe off the piss and booze and dirt from the house before he put on his socks and laced his shoes.
Then he was free.
Free and off down the road as the sun shouldered the skyline and burdened the darkness with form; running and moving over the muddy stone road like a ghost in the grey, running as if nothing weighed him down, as if he were as light as her and could outrun the dawn.
He lived in the middle of a dead-end stone road that seemed always to be wet, always halfway to mud, halfway to being swallowed up in potholes and rarely afflicted with a single decent cell signal. The mailbox sat at the far end of the road, along the highway where urban weekenders in glossy cars returning from the beach resort could stuff their garbage in it, and so the postal van could be spared the indignity and jarring assault of driving eight miles of washboard for half a handful of houses.
Nobody came down that road except for the garbage truck – on Tuesday mornings – and community college boys – on Saturday nights – with borrowed cars and illicit bottles, desperate for a secluded place to practice moves on high school girls emboldened by the attention of slightly older men.
The road fell somewhere in the obscurity between two towns, such that no one who lived on it was ever quite sure in which they actually resided. They paid taxes to one municipality but got hydro from the other; had a Hobsford phone number but watched a Port Carson police cruiser pull into the grassy driveway, to bring Ed home or to question him; and god-only-knows whosever ambulance showed up to take either of them away.
So he ran, and often. Never, it seemed, to anywhere in particular. There was really nowhere to go. He could never run away – as much as he wanted to – and just leave her there with him. She’d die. She had come close many times already. He couldn’t go. Could never go. So he just ran… He ran to get out of the house, out of that world, away from the people in it, and sometimes out of his head… but he always came back home. And whenever anybody asked where he went, he could only ever say, “Nowhere.”
He never spent much time looking ahead. His eyes rarely strayed from the ground beneath him. He might glance up from the road now and then, at the sound of a car or the nudge of motion in his periphery; might notice a truck stuck out in a field or a pile of tires dumped at a crossroads… But mostly, he just watched the ground roll away beneath him as his legs drummed a rhythm on the road that he felt in his chest.
It soothed him in the times when his hands shook. Whenever he found himself clenching his teeth or squeezing his fists until his knuckles turned white, unable to fix the broken things around him; whenever things happened that cut his stomach out and left him fighting to breathe, he ran.
It didn’t fix the problems. It didn’t make them go away. But it held them at bay long enough for Nathan to find his feet again, to catch his breath, even to think a little. It was the only dial he had on his life.
When he was younger, he’d run until he was out of breath, but now that he was seventeen and had been running ever since his parents got divorced, he no longer tired. So, instead, he would run until he ran out of road, or until he had to be somewhere else, or until his own feet brought him back to where he started, a little muddy, a little sore, a little hungry and usually after the lights were turned out. Lately, there just wasn’t enough road.
That year, he’d taken to running the private roads connecting the cottages that dotted the Carolinian forest guarding the lake shore. The Abino Peninsula was all old(ish) forest, right to the water in many parts and peppered with summer cottages, all of them dwarfing his own home, perched high on sand dunes with humble wooden stairs that trickled down to meet polished luxury cars with New York plates. All the roads bore “Private Lane” or “No Trespassing” signs but he never cared to notice them and, whether unbothered or just conceited, no one ever spoke a word to him.
The roads forked and spread like an ivy, rising and falling with the rolling topography and he found simple pleasure in the challenges of working up and over each hill, the ground swallowing up half of each stride as the sand and gravel gave way beneath his feet and made his calves and thighs burn with the added work. The ancient white pines loomed high over the younger hardwoods in some stretches and cast shadows, moth-eaten with shafts of dusty light where dragonflies would reign in early summer, diving and taking the mayflies that danced in their brief lives. But for now, it was early spring, the ground still feathered with frost where the morning sun neglected it along the forested shore; reduced to cold mud everywhere else.
Some days he ran and would later catch the bus to school. Some days he ran right to school, a distance of 10 kilometers. Some days, he didn’t bother going at all. Sometimes, it just wasn’t in him. He’d write himself an excusatory note, sign it with a practiced hand, and if anyone in the office had ever grown suspicious enough to call home, they either got a full answering machine or, more often lately, a disembodied voice declaring the line disconnected.
That morning, which had not been so terrible in comparison to others, Nathan ran to school. He always left his books in his locker because his courses were all basic or remedial and he just sped through whatever homework there was. If it couldn’t be done in class or before he left, it just didn’t get done.
Two days later, one of the rare times he actually took the bus to the end of his road and came home during the day, he returned to find his mother’s lifeless body sprawled on the crimson-streaked bathroom floor, her gelled blood pooled on the linoleum beneath her.
She’d chased a handful of sleeping pills with another of Oxycontin and, when her stomach proved unable to keep much of it down, she’d made a clawing attempt at cutting her wrists with a broken kitchen knife. She had been unable to dig very deeply with the dull remnant of the blade, but it was enough blood loss to drop her pressure dangerously low and what poison remained in her stomach took hold and took her away.
There was little life left in her when he slammed through the door, slipping in her blood, falling in it, slamming his head and collapsing alongside her, seeing those dulled grey eyes without even a spark left in them, inches from his own.
“Where did you go?” he whispered, tears filling his eyes, “Don’t go. Not yet.”
He said it over and over, like a mantra, “Goddamn you,” as he knelt over her and did chest compressions while Ed cried in the kitchen. The man had tried to pull Nathan off of her, tried to tell him she was gone but he only threw his phone at the haggard drunk and swore at him to call 911.
He’d never had an actual CPR course. The school offered them sometimes but the cost was always beyond him. Nothing but Youtube videos he’d watched in health class, but he’d paid attention and the awful fact was that this wasn’t the first time he’d had to do this for her. It felt like hours but he knew the time it would take for the ambulance to arrive, so he closed off everything inside and around him and just kept breathing for her, doing compressions.
When the paramedics arrived, she had a pulse rate and blood pressure that barely registered. But she was breathing again, albeit shallow. He didn’t hear them when they pushed through the door, blue gloved hands gripping his arm, softly, urgently, lifting him firmly away as a white-haired woman took over compressions. He didn’t see them either. He didn’t see anything but her body, subtly quaking with each thrust on her sternum.
Everything moved and turned around him, sound muffled like he was hearing through a wall; from outside. All he could hear was his own breathing, drowning everything else out, even when they tried to speak to him. His arms felt like they were still moving, still doing compressions until he looked down and saw them shaking by his sides, and tears, someone’s tears falling like cold rain at his bloody feet.
Sound crept slowly back as he rode in the ambulance, watching the female paramedic squeezing the bag that breathed for his mother while another peeled adhesive pads and hooked wires to her chest, watching a screen as tubes and bags and wires swayed and the vehicle shook and leapt over potholes. She was a still image amidst all of it, strapped to a blue board, rubies blooming in the snow of each gauzed-swaddled wrist. Twice during the ride, a yellow box along the wall began to flash and it had to shock her heart to keep it barely beating.
He had no idea where Ed was. The thought didn’t even cross his mind until they were in front of the hospital and the doors were opening, gurney rolling out and legs dropping and someone yelled in his ear that she was “steadying but still faint” as they wheeled her through sliding glass doors.
He stayed behind for a moment, standing beneath the canopy as the ambulance shut its doors and pulled away. He stood looking on at the familiar sight of her rolling down the corridor, the center of a flurry of nurses running alongside the paramedics, holding IV bags of fluids, shouting directions to others…
It would be another long night.
Her blood stained half his body. His shirt and shorts were a dark purple along the length of his right side and it marred his arms and knees with a blackened red which instinctually drew alarm from every pair of eyes that passed him, barefoot and curled awkwardly in a chair pushed to her bedside, shoes kicked off under the bed.
He dozed in intervals, tucked into a crumpled ball like a lanky dog, unwilling to leave her side. Only his arm left the confines of the chair, snaked uncomfortably under one armrest and across stern white linens to cradle a fragile hand, bedevilled by tubes and tape and an intravenous catheter.
He did not drift off entirely – barely closed his eyes – waking frequently as medical staff came and went, doing tests and hanging bags of blood, shooting syringes of whatever into her IV lines and he stood back and watched, remarkably unfazed, when they pulled the breathing tube from inside her after she’d begun to breathe reliably on her own.
He’d followed from the ER and moved with her, room to room while they shuffled her about as her condition improved. She’d needed three units of blood and he’d given some of his own because they shared the same rare type. Though it would not go directly to her, the nurse had asked him to donate because O negative could be given to anyone, but she could only receive blood of the same type, of which there was currently a shortage.
He stayed in the chair by her bed, sipping juice and eyeing the rubber band the lab tech tied briefly around his upper arm to bring a vein to the surface, trying to distract him when she poked the needle through his skin.
He didn’t hear words.
The needle pushed and tore into his flesh without feeling while he looked on at the yellow ribbon, only turning to check on her, and looking back at the blood leaving his body through the long winding tube. Hoping it would do some good.
Sometime in the morning, he woke to her squeezing his hand and opened his eyes to see hers, smiling weakly but blue again; not vibrant, not bright and full of life as he remembered from his brief childhood, but she was there. Still there, breathing and smiling kindly at him, in the way that only tired mothers smile.
“You look like hell,” she whispered, coarse and old and wincing with the pain in her throat from the tube.
He grasped her hand lightly and returned her smile, if only out of the small measure of relief he felt amidst profound sadness.