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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One Night Stand

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This was the strangest funeral I had ever attended. The girl in the coffin was not a friend, not family, not even a co worker. We had met a few lonely nights ago at a little underground bar called The Nightcall. She was dressed in a flimsy blue dress and cherry pumps. With a cigarette in one hand and a Jack in the other she looked over at me and nodded. Taking the invitation I bought her a few drinks then we grabbed a cab back to her place.

To be honest I barely remember that night. I remember that she was really kinky and I was to drunk to really process all her little fantasies. All I really know is that the next day I woke up with a splitting headache and her standing over me with a mug of something hot. “I’m going to a party later.” she said as I rolled out of her bed and accepted the mug. “You can come if you want.” Slowly I sipped the brown sludge. Why is she inviting me to a party, I thought to myself. Doesn’t she know this is the last time we’ll see each other? Shrugging to myself I looked up at her. Watery blue eyes stared back. They looked dead. “Sure.” I replied. The girl nodded and walked out of the room.

I sat on her bed staring into space. My body felt like shit. A clock on the wall read 2:30pm. With a sigh I stood and started dressing. “Hey,” I yelled from her room,”Can I use your shower?” If I was going to go back out I might as well smell nice. She yelled a yes back.

After showering and dressing I made my way to her kitchen. It was a bare apartment. There was a table and chair, a couch in the living room and a small television. No pictures hung on the walls. There wasn’t even a cheap piece of artwork. “Like to keep it simple?” I asked trying to break the awkward silence. She nodded.

“So,” she said,”That party begins at 4. And we have to take the train. I’m also hungry so we should probably head out now.” I shrugged. Grabbing a coat she led me out.

We ate at a little hot dog stand before hopping on the light rail to the far side of town. It was a 30 minute ride. To long to sit next to a stranger you slept with and not speak. And yet not a word escaped between us the entire ride. Finally we reached our stop. A soft drizzle had begun outside. We got off the train and I followed the woman down a few blocks. The neighborhood was grungy and falling apart. A few people scurried by in the haze.

She stopped in front of a house that was three stories up and narrow. It was a brick home though the brick was no longer red. Instead it was black with mold. A little nervously I followed her inside. She was wearing a black dress tonight and purple lipstick. “So this is it?” I asked. I hoped she didn’t hear the edge in my voice. All I received in answer was a short nod. Shrugging I followed her up the stoop.

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Inside a dull thump of a stereo resonated through the brick. The hallway was empty save for a thick cloud of smoke hanging in the air. I could hear loud voices and laughter coming from a closed door to the right of us. She led me through the door and down a flight of stairs. A warm glow from several red and blue lamps greeted us. At the bottom was a large room filled with doped up people lounging on scrap sofas. “Hey!” someone yelled,”You made it!” Before I knew it I was swept into a haze of smoke, and smiles, and dreams. I don’t know what I took that night. A hot blonde pushed a few pills in my mouth with her tongue . Whatever they were they made me pass into oblivion. My date didn’t seem to interested in making sure I was ok. I remember seeing her with someone else across the room. They were making out. It didn’t matter. I had found a new hook up, a hook up with pills.

The rest of the afternoon and night passed disappeared in a blob of pulsing music and foggy thoughts. In the morning I woke up in an empty basement. A smell of sweat and urine stung my nose. Without the dim lights you could see the black mold and grime that blanketed the walls and floor. I was sprawled on one of the couches. The air was damp. “Hello?” I called. No answer. My head hurt as I stood up slowly. Unsure of what to do I went upstairs and began to look for the girl I came with. The house was empty. My shoes made an earie click on the hardwood floors. Like my first hook up’s apartment there were no decorations, no lived in feel. Finally I gave up. I had to piss. Finding the bathroom I went in. As I stood there, unloading all the smoke and fog from last night something caught the corner of my eye, a shoe. There was a woman’s shoe laying next to the bathtub. Zipping up my pants I approached the tub. A strange sensation began to bubble in my stomach. With a moist palm I hesitantly pulled the bath curtain back. My breath caught in my throat. Laying with her body twisted in an unnatural angle was the girl I’d come with. Her eyes were open, glazed, staring. Her purple mouth was cracked open. A white residue dusted her upper lip every so gently.

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The ambulance was there within 10 minutes. She was pronounced dead on scene. With some shock and pity I answered the questions and went through the paper work. It wasn’t until late that evening that I finally made it back to my home. Two days later I received the call. It was from the coroner. After exchanging a polite but rather awkward introduction he asked an even more awkward and strange question. “Well sir, it seems as if this young woman has no family or friends that can be found. Usually for these types we hold a small service just to lay the poor soul to rest. Since you’re the one that found her, we would like to possibly invite you to attend. I know it’s a little unorthodox but you are the only person we have in connection with her.” His voice was dry and crackely like paper.

“Sure,” I said,”I’ll come.” I hung up the phone. The next day I went to the strangest funeral I had ever attended. There was a priest, the coroner, and an alter boy. A janitor stood silently in the back ground, broom in one hand, the other wiped the corner of his eye. “Such a shame,” he muttered,”Such a shame to live such an empty life and to die such an empty death.” A chill crawled up my spine.

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Her hair was red and long. It floated like a shroud over her shoulders. A faint rosy blush kissed her cheeks, as if she were not dead but merely asleep. As I stood there, a feeling of tiredness swept over me. I didn’t even know her name. Turning I left the chapel. I spoke to no one. Hailing a cab I climbed in and returned home. Some people haunt you forever. You can’t say why or really understand who they were or their purpose in your life, but they haunt you. She haunts me to this day. Her red hair, her blue dress, her weary nod. The cold way she handed me the coffee mug. She’ll haunt me till death comes to my door and finally frees me from this empty life.