Dust

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The smoke from the pipe curled up the stone wall like a lizard trying to find a cool spot on a hot day. His beard was thick and long, hanging down to his barrel chest. Silvery threads twisted themselves around the darker strands choking them out. Dark eyes glinted behind lowered lids, searching for the right words. He flipped through the stiff, yellow pages of his book. There was a specific quote he wanted to find. It was something that reminded him of before, when he didn’t know about war.

Outside the sun was setting. Dark yellow rays pushed past the tangled branches of the fir trees lining the gravel driveway. They fell onto the front porch where he was sitting, reading. Lovingly the dying rays lit the words for him. He found the quote. Pulling a blue pen from his jacket’s pocket he circled the sentence, “Every heart that has beat strongly and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind.” He had once lived by that quote. The words had motivated him through his school years and later it pushed him through his early adult life. But at a certain point it had begun to lose meaning. The longer he lived and fought the less his heart beat strongly and cheerfully. Eventually it had stopped beating all together. That’s why he’d moved here, to the mountains, away from anyone or anything that could possibly see his dead heart.

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Now he sat on his front porch re-reading the sentence for the first time in twenty years. “Every heart that has beat strongly and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world.” Saying the words out loud made him nervous. His voice was rough and strained from under use. The soft smell of warm pine drifted over in a puff of breeze. With a deep sigh he sucked it in. Reaching under his chair he ruffled the fluffy head of the dog sleeping there. Affectionately the animal licked his master’s hand. “A strong and cheerful heart. You have one of those Cooper.” Cooper’s tale thudded against the wood of the deck at the sound of his name. “I wish I did too.”

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By now the sun was sitting on top of the purple mountains, casting an orange halo over the sky. The air was cool and clear. Standing the man and dog walked off the porch. It was time for their nightly stroll through the trees before star gazing and then bed. Pine needles crunched under the weight of his heavy boots, Cooper’s feet padded quietly. Hands buried deep in his pockets he continued to think about the quote and why he’d come here. He hadn’t been home long before he realized he wouldn’t fit in anymore. All of his old friends where married now with kids, mortgages , and no future. His parents had long spent their retirement on cruises and golf and were now rotting away in a retirement home. They didn’t remember him. He intended to die in these mountains, away from people, alone. No one would miss him. Maybe he’d even be happy a little bit knowing that he had done his part and gone quietly. But now he wasn’t so sure. Here there was just quiet, reflection, and regret.

Regret. The word had hung in his dusty mind like a dying leaf on a branch for years. At first he had only thought the feeling was numbness to all the evil he’d seen. Then he thought it was bitterness. Now he realized it was all of those wrapped up in a tight blanket of regret for a life he could have enjoyed and loved but instead hated and brooded over. It was the last gift he had received for all his hard work. He’d given his whole life away for a cause he never really believed in only to be rewarded with a dead soul. His once strong and cheerful heart had been ground into the very dust he’d lived in for the last 20 years.

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The sun had now set. Cooper followed his master back up the stone steps of the house and in through the front door. Whining the dog wagged his tale as his bowl was filled with dinner. Watching Cooper inhale his food was calming. This animal had nothing to do in this life except love and be loved. It would be a sad day when Cooper died. “Come on Cooper. Let’s go back outside.” He said. The dog looked up, his hershey kiss eyes filled with kindness. They went back to the front porch to watch the stars come out. Lighting up his pipe again he sat back in his chair and turned his eyes to the darkening sky. The smoke twisted in the cool night air. It was black out there in the mountains, like dark velvet. Little stars began to poke their little heads out of the bluish, purple sky. With a sigh he stretched out his feet on the railing of the porch. All around him nature was living, thriving, existing. Despite the cold winters, fierce summers, and long rains of the spring, these mountains remained strong and powerful. Whatever was the center of this wilderness was strong and hopeful. There was a hopeful impulse in everything here. How had he never noticed it  before? It flowed like blood from a gaping wound. There was no regret in the mountains, only survival and beauty. Life went on.

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A small breeze blew through the trees and across his face, stirring his beard. He could feel a little spot dust clear away. Eventually it would all blow away. There would be a new heart left behind. Not as fresh as the old one once was, he thought, but not so dead as it was now. Picking up the book he opened back up the quote he’d circled, “Every heart that has beat strongly and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind.”

“Cooper,”he said around his pipe,”I think tomorrow we need to go into town. I haven’t seen mom and dad in awhile. Might be a good idea to visit don’t you think?” Cooper thumped his tail. He smiled and patted Cooper’s head. Tonight he’d stopped dying in these mountains. Instead he decided he would live, and find a way back to a strong and cheerful heart.

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Dead Puppy

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There was something disconcerting about the way the light bounced off the pasty white head of the man. He had walked in ten minutes ago after a class and was sitting at the desk chatting with some of the other students about the bad coffee. I was pretending to read in the back corner. In reality I wasn’t taking my eyes off him. When someone makes you nervous you want to know everything about who they are.

I’d heard a few of the others refer to him once as the evil character from a child hood book series we were all familiar with. At the time the comment had made me laugh. But now as I was seeing the man for the first time I realized the reference wasn’t just for laughs. This man could very well be seeking to destroy my soul.

The topic had now changed from coffee to one up stories. These were my favorite to eaves drop. You were always guaranteed to hear at least one story that made you feel better about yourself. The more outrageous the story the more sad the person.

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“You’ve never known cold till you’re on watch at night in the middle of the fucking desert. Let me tell you, some nights my hands would turn blue. And I was the only one my sergeant trusted so I’d stand extra watches or just be out there with the other guy to make sure everything was ok. It was brutal.” Ken scratched his short beard as he leaned back into the bright computer screen.

“Yeah man, I feel you. When I was deployed we were so short people we had to stand double watches. Every 12 hours.” I didn’t know who’d just chimed in. He was new in the office. We’d probably never see him again after today.

The bald man laughed at the comments. It was a cold laugh. Cold like night time in the fucking desert. “I’ll tell you what’s cold, killing a puppy.” He said. The other two looked at him their bodies tensed to think of a better story then what was about to be told. “Once when we were on patrol we went overtime and had to stay the night out in the middle of the mountains. Talk about sketchy. I honestly thought we’d get ambushed and die. To make it worse we didn’t have anything to eat except some cliff bars and gatorades.”

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“Yeah we had to do that once. I was pretty terrified but now I’ve done not much scares me.” Ken chimed in.

“Well we didn’t have food, so we were just sitting around trying to get comfortable. I was on watch just pacing around to stay warm, when I hear this little yelp. Scared the shit out of me at first. So I went over to these bushes to see what it was. There was this little puppy tied to one of the branches. It must’ve been one of the village kids or something and they’d forgotten about it.”

“I remember there being dogs everywhere too. Stupid shits were always getting in the way. I’d just kick them.” The random man laughed at his fake joke. The bald one ignored him and continued.

“I picked up the little guy and brought him to the guys and was like hey I found dinner. They thought I was joking at first until I bashed it’s head in. Let me tell you, that puppy tasted delicious. I’m not saying I’d eat one here but if I had to I probably would.”

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There was a moment of silence as everyone who’d heard the story soaked it in. The bald man was laughing a smile stretched across his egg white face. I curled up into a tighter ball and sank my head down further into my book.

“Well I can’t say I’ve eaten a puppy, but I did eat a cat on a deployment once. Tasted like shit.” Ken was trying hard to not seem offended by the story. The random man interjected his two sense and soon the conversation had digressed to another topic. I continued to read my book no longer paying them any attention. The bald man had lost my interest. If he wanted to tell a group of people he’d just met he ate puppies instead of cliff bars then that was sign to stay clear. I didn’t have time for people who ate small animals to prove they were men.