Continued from chapter 19 of the Devastation Series.
The Fire dimmed down as the night went on. The smell of charred wood and burnt brush filled the air. The smoke. typical of many campfires, followed you. I got frustrated since it happened to me several times. We would cough then the stream would shift and that repeated any time we moved. Cool drafts crossed my path a few times then changed with the winds. The lighting flickered and cast an orange and yellow overtone as the coals burned a deep white. The crickets were chirping and a locust intermittently sounded. An Owl “who’d” and coyotes cackled in a pack somewhere in the distance. I was sure that I saw glowing eyes a couple of times but the flames kept everything away.
When I awoke in the middle of the night the fire was running low. We had used a large portion of the fuel pile, but still had plenty to keep the fire going all night. The night was crisp and clear. I reminded myself, that I was shivering under a rainstorm not so long ago. I got to my knees and waddled over to the fire. The charcoal popped and snapped and the heat intensified when I had gone too close. I could feel the warmth on my skin like I was baking over a spit when I reached in. I took a long stick and adjusted the embers. I grabbed a couple more pieces of fuel and angled them over the glowing logs at the bottom of the pit. As I gently stirred the fire the ashes danced in the rising air. The small glowing particles looked like fairies climbing higher in the sky. I cleared my throat and sat back. I could smell the smoke on me, and I felt like it was a part of the price for today. It was authentic. I stoked the fire a couple of times, before settling into my spot.
I had a padded down area which was soft grass. The earth wasn’t too cold and the grass made nice cushion. My bag rested against the tree as a lumpy pillow. When I slid back into the grooved seat, I noticed Bert was up. “Hey, Bert…” I said coughing through from the extra smoke.
“Jake…” He replied in a monotone. His age showed by the fire. Deep wrinkles from a harder life were bold by the shadows of the night fire. His beard looked whiter and grayer in the evening light with the ends yellowed slightly. Bert stared far away into the moonlit sky. It was evident that he was contemplating something to himself. The clouds made a small cut out of the moon.
“What do you think about when you… go off… like that?” The timing just felt right.
“Tell me something… What do you know of life – the roads?” He asked.
“Well… that is a loaded question, I think… I have been focused on the wrong things, thus ending here…” I scooted and straightened my posture.
“So this is your rock bottom?” He inquired.
“Well, when you put it that way… uh… I guess, sort of…” I involuntarily shrugged with the answer.
“I was not always a streets guy…” He cleared his throat, sipped his glass, and continued. We would up spending several hours covering: Life Stories. I leaned into what he was saying as he started from the beginning… “I used to be like you. Heavy on the bottle when things were not going well. I had a family once too. I grew up poor. Not we ate rice and beans every night poor, but there were no frills. No extras. We had a roof and had outside. Things were not as they are now. My father lived through the original waves. I could not imagine then…” He paused and took a deep breath. Like he was preparing for a storm or something. “I too enjoyed the bottle. Too much. I was a successful salesman, drone sales, specifically. As they became more public, the market was booming. I made a ton… I had a lot of work parties – sales celebrations… each of those moments were away from my family. I chased the things. I wanted the best this and the best that… but in the end – it would rust or break. And like the things, my family disintegrated over time…” He continued and shared examples. We traveled down memory lane and when he smiled, it was so full that I could almost feel that moment of joy. “When I lost my family, I gave up on the world. The stuff… the… stuff… I got rid of it all. Gave it all away. Been liv’n out here every since. And while it’s not easy and not for everyone – I have found me and aside from my family being missing… I enjoy myself. For the most part…” He was convincing when he spoke. Authoritative, assertive, and compelling… “Jake… now I want to know about you. Everything out here has a cost. Mine is equality.” He looked down, adjusted his position and I wondered where to begin.
I began with the loss of my mom. I explained the freakish nature of it how my family, too, grew apart. I explained all of the details as I remembered them and could only hope that I articulated the feelings into words. That’s the thing about a story. It’s just a narrative if we miss the emotion. The story is what painted the feelings for others to see, to feel. I explained my prior relationship – how I started to think differently. The poor decisions that I made with work, Samuel, and my desire to know more. I spent a lot of time enamoring over Samuel and how that life event not only changed his life but mine as well. I explained the recent loss of my dad and that I made a new friend. Bert took all of it in like a psychiatrist presiding over a client on his couch.
“So tell me more about this… Valerie…” He said in a mischievous tone. It was the kind of comment that a father would make to his child. A mocking, but a serious inquiry.
“I don’t know… She was someone that I met and was with me when Dad passed.” I plainly stated.
“I see.” He raised his voice an octave, out of character for him. The minutes continued to fly by and my eyes grew heavy upon finishing my glass. Our conversation naturally dwindled and I drifted off. I was pretty sure that Bert did the same, but I did not watch him. The fire was stoked one last time and the warmth cut the night chill. I folded back into my spot and could see the flickering under my eyelids. I imagined Valerie in my mind’s eye. I wished that I could be sitting on the couch at the apartment. I did not feel unsafe with Bert, out in the woods. But I did feel safe with her. There was something else that I couldn’t grasp yet.
I woke up and was surprised to see the morning so well underway. I felt a weight in my pocket and pulled out my phone. It was on and fully charged. I was sure that I had left it in my bag but attributed it to a couple too many and night boredom. Bert had already packed up and impatiently was waiting to go. He seemed to be very withdrawn and not as I remembered him. I wondered if what I told him last night changed his views towards me. I wondered if I had crossed a line that even he had not crossed. After several pleasantries on my part, I gave up. I appreciated what we had the prior night. I appreciated the ability to just tell my story. It was one of the first times that I walked through it, fairly sequentially and out load.
The camp area was dismantled. It did not even look like we had a fire the night before, I was impressed. I thought he must clean up after himself so that it’s not as obvious that he used the property. Bert was very cognizant of the cost of things – and appreciating the things he had or was able to use. It was obvious, even in his small room, in the building. As I finished packing up, he started to walk back to the city. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and started to follow up. His long strides stayed well in advance of mine. While he maintained a distance, I started recounting all of the things that had happened to me over the last week or so. I started from the beginning… Life was trying to teach me something and it was just dawning on me to pay attention. Since we had a long walk back and talking appeared to be out of the question, I traveled my timeline.
My thoughts scattered but I have attended to each of them. What was it that I wanted? What was it that defined Jake? I recalled the life that I was leading. It was a 9-5 life where all of my needs were met, so I thought at the time. It was obvious that I was missing companionship. All of my identity seemed to be in things. My stories revolved around a new gadget or something that Maggie and I had done to the house. We had a very SMART house and led that kind of life. What did Samuel do to me? What was it that intrigued me so much about the survival aspect? I realized that it was the realness of life around me, not the things that made my life easier. I missed cooking. There is something to be said for gardening and harvesting your own crops. The art of living was lost to tech some time ago, and I think I was lost with it. My dad was on to something, and Samuel showed me that. Of course, I also desperately wanted to see how it ended for Samuel. I think it was a form of closure – proof that it all worked out.
I worked through several things on that walk while Bert. He stayed a long way ahead of me. I realized that I was confined in some ways, and all of this was me just breaking out of some sort of shell that I have surrounded myself with or in. Simple things mattered. I felt an increasing amount of guilt and sorrow surrounding my father. I wrestled with the fact that he was gone and there was nothing that I could do to mend the gap that had grown over the years. I was angry that Maggie kept him from me, not sharing his letters or letting me know that he wished to visit. All of this time… I shut it down as quickly as it started; I too, should have reached out. And if I should have done that – I would have seen the gaps sooner. I was foolish.
The trees began to bend and sway while the thunder roared with the light flashing in the sky. I was amazed at how quickly the storm came upon us. It was light, hardly any clouds in the sky and now sirens were echoing in the distance. “What is going on?” I asked myself. “Hey, Bert! Wait up!!!” I shouted over the clashing, whooshing, and banging from mother nature. He did not hear me and kept walking. “Bert!!!” I heard myself groan and picked up the pace. I knew that I needed to be closer to him so that he could hear me. The gusts of wind blew me side to side with the backpack over my shoulder throwing my balance off. I staggered and stepped forward as if my feet were covered in concrete. I imagined quicksand would be a similar experience as well; a lot of effort for small strides. “Bert!” I called out to him again. I must have either been loud enough or close enough because he stopped in his tracks. He continued facing forward as I caught up. As I got closer he looked slightly different. In fact, it did not look like Bert at all… He abruptly turned and thunder crashed, it was my father! I stammered back and fell with another bolt of lightning. I jarred awake.
I exhaled loudly and jumped forward from my seat. My heart was racing and my eyes crazily scanned the surroundings to determine where I was… Bert’s reflex ended with his hand on my shoulder. Bert later told me that my eyes were widened, and my body was shaking. I had called out in my sleep and I was breathing like I was hyperventilating. “Jake – hey… it’s okay, you’re okay…” Bert said in a comforting tone that I had not heard before. His arm was still on my shoulder.
“What the f***… where?!?” I managed to get out.
“We are at the tree… We spent the evening chatting it up…” Bert reassured as the thunder clashed across the sky again. “You called out Valerie earlier and then Dad before you jolted… started the hell outta me.” He paused and looked up, “It does look like rain though…”
“I don’t know what just happened…” I said exasperatedly. I explained the dream to Bert in fine detail. He nodded and listened to my tale.
“Sounds like you have some deep-rooted things going on in your life, bud…” Bert said after a long pause. He turned around and sized up the current sky situation. The clouds were blowing in and the lightning increased. The thunder began to roll and I reflected momentarily on my dream. My dad was far gone and I just wasn’t able to get him back… I had more of the onion to peel back. I wondered how – when?!?
We stirred the fire and prepared for the inevitable rain. It was a ways off, but coming soon. Bert dug madly in his bag and pulled out one of the survival kits. It was impressive how he had just the right things at the right times. He strung up a clothesline like a cord from a couple of branches. He pulled a foil shaped packet from a small pouch and proceeded to unfold the square which doubled in size each unfold. It was an emergency thermal blanket that also acted as a barrier to rain. As he finished stringing it up the breeze carried the mist across my face. “What do you think it all meant?” Bert asked.
“What – the dream?” I questioned.
“Yes Jake, the dream, I believe things that happen do for a reason. We are to learn something and it will come to you in every form able until you get the intended message.” He explained. I gazed out through the fire which was a little smaller in size. The tree blocked most of the fire from the water, but enough made it through so the fire shrank. The heat was welcomed by us during the downpour. I did not see Bert move the fuel, but it was out of the main downpour. He tossed a couple of small logs in so that we could keep the fire hot enough.
“What time do you think it is?” I looked towards Bert.
“Does it matter? Will that change anything?” He mockingly inquired, “I imagine it is around 4 AM… There is a slight light along the horizon.” He pointed to the distance. I followed his fingers with my eyes. I continued my story from earlier. Firing hypothetical after hypothetical… walking through all of the ideas… there were lessons somewhere in there, I was sure of it.
“Everything has some form of balance, Jake. You were really into your superficial life… Your dad was far in the other direction. You are experiencing something to understand another view. You have some guilt with your dad… You have something inside of you that you need to figure out with this Valerie. Well, all of it really.” Like a wise old man, he stated ideas like he was reading the summary to a group of notes. He was right… about all of it. It would take time until it really set in, but he had watered the planted seeds. I leaned back and looked up. I took his words in and replayed the dream fragments that I could remember. His thoughts were laced into mine and streamed in my mind. I closed my eyes and put my nose into the air. The wet grass and smoke ash filled my nostrils.
“Why does it have to be so… hard?” I muttered, trailing off. Bert snapped over to look at me. He paused then stared right past me. He then laid back against the tree as the water began to fall heavily from the sky. It sounded like BB’s were dropped from above when the rain began to come down.
“Lessons should be memorable.” He proclaimed. With that, he looked the other direction and we both sat isolated in the rain. I rested again, for several hours while the storms came in and left.
After a long silence, Bert called over to me “C’mon…” and he gestured down towards the pond. The rain beat down upon us as we found the stick holding the lines we tied up last night. He pulled the first set in and it was empty. He cleaned off the worms and wrapped the hooks into a small stick that he picked up. The second line was taught and gave quite the resistance while being brought in. As he pulled the last hook out of the water a silver shimmering head dove back into the water and tail splashed out of the pond. Bert, who was thrilled, gave out a sort of hoot and holler as he hand reeled in the line, wrapping it around another stick. Finally, when the head appeared under the surface again, Bert forked his fingers and pulled the fish out by the gills. “Carp!” He said grinning ear to ear.
Bert ended up cleaning the fish and dumping the remains beside the lake. “Food for the other animals.” He said, rinsing off his hands in the water. The rain-soaked us, but rinsed off everything too. He ended up cutting two large fillets off the fish and wrapping them in aluminum foil that was folded up in his bag as well. He took several larger sticks and made a makeshift grate in the fire placing the wrapped meat on the logs. Every so often he would flip and turn the packages until he thought they were just right. He pulled one off and opened the foil enough to see the fish was done. “Here,” he said after it cooled down a bit, “it’s a bit boney but good protein and vitamins.”
He was right, the carp had many fine bones in it – but the chewiness didn’t turn my hunger away. The fish slid over my tongue with a warm and wild taste. The fillet was filling and not too heavy. Each of us refilled our glass and finished off the bottle. We had drunk more than I remembered the night before, but I was glad to not have the bottle anymore. It was nice to casually sip the drink with a meal, though. My small bites, allowed for my stomach to feel full by the time that I finished. There was no salt. No sugar. Nothing processed about the meal and strangely it was just as satisfying. Sure, tartar sauce would be a welcomed addition, but it was not a necessity for life at this moment. I leaned back against the tree, thanked Bert, and enjoyed the disappearance of hunger.
After a couple of hours, the rain died down. The overhang on the tree kept the fire and us mostly dry. The fire was weakened by all of the water but we kept it warm enough that it held its own. Our conversations dwindled for some time while we both took all of it in. I imagined Bert walking through his life events as I was mine. A person could have caught either of us looking into the beyond as we lost ourselves in daydreams. When only a brief mist was left, Bert cleaned up the fire area, and let it die out. He stacked the remaining fuel beside the tree we were sitting at and started packing. He took down our canopy and shook it out before putting it away. “I’ll dry it out later…” he said at me while folding it nicely into a bag. He pulled out two garbage bags from the side of his backpack and handed me one. “Poncho.” He stated.
After finishing tidying the area, almost as is we were never there, we tossed our bags over our shoulders and without verbal communication, started heading back. In a way, it reminded me of my dream. I assumed that we would be heading back to where we stayed the prior night. I spent the next several hours admiring the world around me as I walked beside Bert in and out of alleys, side streets, and sidewalks. He walked a much slower pace than he had to start. It was as if he was in a fog. I think we both were actually, looking back. I think we learned something within ourselves, from each other. Several of the points stung when I rehashed them or discovered them. There were moments that I felt like a complete failure but I continued my stride forward anyway. We did engage in some small talk, from time to time, but mostly, we walked through mental fields and harvesting thoughts and memories by ourselves. An occasion rain cloud would stroll by and sprinkle on us – but we were able to casually continue home… if that is what you could call it.
We arrived back in the neighborhood early evening. Before we settled in, we walked over to a small church, closer than last time, and got a bowl of soup. It was not much – but my stomach was thankful, never-the-less. We said our thanks and wandered back to his place, taking a long way. “You never told me,” I questioned as we approached the building, “how did you find that place? Or what made you go think to look?”
“Jake… As I said, I was not always homeless. The property was in my family for a long time. I know the owner and he agreed that I can come out. The cost: clean up after myself, and keep the waters trash free as best I can. Everything is connected, Jake. If you remember one thing from me. Remember that. Everything depends on everything and everything has a cost.” I was amazed, to say the least. This man had so many stories to tell. If I didn’t know any better, I would think that he chose this life…
We got back inside and passed several of his neighbors. Each with a nodded greeting or small wave. As the evening pressed on the fire was lit again in the trashcan. The rain started again and the draft was intense as it passed through the barrier-less floor. We huddled around the can, taking turns warming our hands. The straggling nomads wandered in from the streets and took turns drying off and warming up. Bert and I didn’t talk much the rest of the night, but I asked if I could stay with him again and he agreed. The cost: company and assist with things as I was able. We continued this life for the next several weeks. I forgot about work. I didn’t yearn for the fanciful life that I was accustomed to. I missed some people though, but I was surely forgotten by now.
I lost track of the dates but followed as best I could with signage and digital displays. On a Friday, I was walking around town with Bert. It was a strange day, with an odd feeling about it. We had just finished breakfast when everything would change. Bert was quieter than normal and I didn’t push him. We rounded the corner to walk into the city and Bert froze. His arms stiffened and legs went limp. He reached to his sides like he was expecting guide-rails. Then with one motion, he thumbed his chest clutching at his shirt like he was going to rip it off. As if his soul was stripped from his body he fell straight to the ground with a thud. I was frantic and waved my arms above my head. I called out for help and asked passers-by for a hand. No one would pay any attention. Even the drones, programmed to take action, dismissed all of my actions. It was as if we didn’t exist. Out of habit, I reached into my pocket for my phone. Then I realized that I did still have it. I tore through my bag and powered the Lynx up. It alerted me to one bar of battery left, as it flashed at me. 9-1-1.
“Help… My friend has had a heart attack or something.”
Read more of the Devastation Series.