Kenndra was shocked to find herself sitting next to a large mound in the dark when just a moment before, at the end of my last story, she was hanging onto the front doorknob of their old apartment, hoping it would fall open so she could get away from Dan once and for all—then suddenly there was no doorknob.
It was a personal decision for me, but after all I had put them through up to this point—a whole relationship conjured up for nothing but my own self-interest—I decided it was time to end it once and for all. The doorknob was just the beginning, because after that I started removing everything else too. For instance, there was no apartment anymore because I had taken it away from them. There was no more cable to fuss with or music to listen to or any restaurants to stage a scene at like there was before. There was no more mismatched plastic-ware or phone calls to customer service either, and no more ducks to feed outside. I had taken all of it away and reduced it to nothing more than vague memories for both of them, mutual reference points. I thought of it as something like a warning shot from me to them that the end was coming, and for them the end was a world stripped down to almost nothing. Now there was only the fire and the mound and the small radius of light they shared together in the dark. Everything they had ever known had been changed in an instant.
Kenndra sat forward with alarm. “What just happened?”
Dan and Kenndra looked around, first at the fire and then at the mound and then into the darkness.
“I don’t know,” said Dan, his eyes wide, trying to help them adjust to the dark, at which point Kenndra began sobbing, the poor thing. Sometimes I don’t know why I do what I do to them and I want to tell them it isn’t their fault, that none of what they’ve ever experienced has been their fault, that it is all me and me alone, playing with myself on the other side of the screen, but I can’t bring myself to do it. All I can bring myself to do now that we’ve come this far together is to keep adding sentences to their lives in search of an ending, hoping perhaps the right moment will eventually arrive and all of our torment will come to an end.
Between that last paragraph and this one, a lot of time has passed and we’ve all become a little bit older. I can’t speak for you, but for them not much has changed except that after spending so much time in the same place, looking at the same things everyday, their new surroundings had become as normal as everything else used to be. Everything except the mound that is, which I made a continual source of mystification for Kenndra.
It was an odd material, a fleshy inside covered by a thin outer skin that blended into the ground around them, which was as dark as everything else outside the firelight. Dan, on the other hand, seemed hardly to think of it, eating it freely, naked of concern for what it actually was, a thought that I planted in Kenndra’s head that she had lately become obsessed with. What was anything, when you really thought about it?
The question gnawed at her mostly because it was impossible to deny that the mound was capable of regenerating itself, as if the chunks they pulled from it in order to keep living were some kind of flesh that could heal over, and once the idea that the mound was actually a living organism entered her mind, she felt parasitic and uncomfortable. The moment the thought occurred, nausea rose up her back and she stopped chewing immediately, spitting the rest of it onto the black ground, but it was too late—I had seared the thought into her mind, and from then on she stopped eating the mound all together.
At first Dan didn’t take her seriously—what else was there to eat?—but after some time passed and all she did was lie next to the fire slowly withering away, like any caring and compassionate person in the real world he became anxious about her. So Dan did what I or anyone else might have done if we were in his position and tried to alter her view of the mound, hoping to nudge her perception of it and somehow save her life, but it didn’t work. She went on withering like a houseplant rejecting water.
He watched her, thinking: “If she was to die right now, or soon, I would be alone in the darkness forever.” He didn’t want her to die because he loved her. Dan was compelled by his love to do everything he could for her, but all she did was lay on the ground near the fire, at the border between light and dark, her hand on her forehead like she was enduring a wretched fever, a real hunger artist.
He would plead with her to take a bite of the mound. He stood over her and took bites himself, mocking her, trying to entice her anyway he could to eat. He reminded her how easy it was to just rip chunks from the mound or poke into with a finger once you broke through the outer skin. He poked holes recklessly and ripped away handfuls, tossing them to the ground like it was stale bread for the ducks they used to feed together. He looked at her and said, “What kind of thing can be torn to pieces like this?” holding a chunk towards her. He took another bite and tossed the rest of it into the fire, chewing obnoxiously. “What kind of flesh just burns up like that?” he added, pointing at the flames rising green behind him.
He tried to reason with her, telling her that her definition of what Living meant was too broad and encompassing and certainly didn’t include this green mound here, at least not the outer layer, but at first she wouldn’t even look at him or the little green peels he tried to offer her. He even went as far as accusing her of committing some kind of backhanded suicide. Dan held the peels in front of her, but she didn’t move. At last the moment came when he just reached out and grabbed her hand. He was going to force her to eat one way or another, so he turned her palm up and placed one of the green peels in the middle. At first, all she could do was stare at it.
“Eat it,” he said.
She stared at it a few more seconds before I made her pick it up with the tips of her fingers. She pinched only as much as she needed to lift it and raised it to her mouth, held it there like it was a green worm.
“Eat it,” he said again. From me through him and into her, the final nudge.
We all watched as she closed her eyes and dropped it into her mouth, her hand shaking, and then she began to chew. She started slow, the muscles of her jaw barely moving, her eyes closed as if she was struggling to remember what she was supposed to do now that the peel of green was actually in her mouth and between her teeth.
Dan was beaming. He was happy now, but she wasn’t and so neither was I, and so we must keep going. Standing over her, Dan watched her swallow, then he listened to her apologize softly, prayer-like to the mound for eating it.
Now, at a point much later on, Kenndra spends most of her time kneeling on the ground between the fire and the mound, using her fingernail to scratch away little strips of the mound’s surface, soundlessly producing little twisted green peels that she lets fall to the ground in front of her, like a prisoner finding a way to pass the time, which is exactly what they both were in a way.
I let Dan remember a summer art class they once had together. I allowed him to reminisce about long ago as I sent a montage of images through his mind: the two of them spooning on the couch together and watching movies or sitting across from each other at restaurant tables, smiling broadly at each other in a moment of laughter or holding hands in the park, feeling the warmth of the sun on their cheeks. All of these nearly forgotten memories were sent drifting into his mind from a previous existence, from a life before the life in this story was ever conceived in my mind, but of course those weren’t the only things Dan remembered.
They had been at the mound a long time now and sitting on the ground watching Kenndra, for some reason he was thinking about how they once used to exercise together on the mound, using it’s odd shape and strange softness in a variety of creative ways. But now, watching Kenndra scrape her peels, he couldn’t remember why they ever stopped. What happened to their routines? It seemed to him as if a certain moment had come along and that was it. Now they mostly just sat next to the mound watching each other all the time, staring at the fire and contemplating the darkness.
“Do you remember when we used to exercise on the mound?” I made him say.
“I’ll tell you what, if I wasn’t afraid of twisting an ankle, I would jump up there again right now. I used to be an athlete.”
This ancient memory of his was lucky to bubble to the surface at all, rising up in his mind from a time when he really was an athlete, a collegiate football player in full control of his body, full of springy fast-twitch muscles and enduring lungs. He shook his head, nostalgic, and looked down at himself now, sitting on the ground with his legs out in front of him. He wiggled his toes inside his shoes just to see if he still could.
Out of the blue, Kenndra said, “Do you know that sometimes I climb to the top of the mound and just sit there, eating handfuls of it?” She stopped scraping the mound and for a moment appeared to become absolutely still, lost completely in her own mind, shocked that she had just blurted that out without any coaxing. If she only knew!
Dan looked at her sharply. “When do you do that?”
“While you sleep,” she said, never looking over at him, avoiding eye contact.
“I like to look for other fires, listen for voices. I like to think there’s still hope for us yet.”
After everything you put yourself through?” he said ignorantly. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”
“I don’t know.”
“What the hell, Kenndra? Well now I know why you’re always so tired. Is that why we stopped exercising?”
“You can exercise anytime you want. Don’t yell at me, okay? There’s no point in yelling.”
“Unbelievable.” Dan crossed his arms.
Kenndra looked at her nails stained a faint green, the two of them alone in total silence save for the fire crackling next to them, neither doing anything but breathe, watching the orange and yellow flames flittering and snapping upward against the black background.
“I saw something last time,” she said after a while. Her admission had the weight of a deathbed confession, another sign of the end encroaching on them if they were aware enough to pick up on it. It was an announcement so out-of-character for her that she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact with him after she said it, overcome with the shame of a secret kept too long. Dan looked at her, angry that she would keep something like that from him for even a moment, but even more so because of the jarring implications of seeing something other than infinite darkness. She was talking about me of course. She saw me.
“Do you remember when we were in our apartment together, right before all this? We were arguing about the cable and you were drinking beer on the porch with your back to me. I came up in the doorway behind you to say that I was leaving for good, but before I could, something caught my eye. Out in the distance, across the parking lot, there was a man in a brown suit and red bowtie staring at the two of us, and he was standing under the shade of those big trees. Do you remember that?”
Dan nodded, anxious for her to get to the point.
“I saw him again,” she said. “It was like he was standing behind a black curtain, like all this darkness around us can just be pushed aside, and he leaned out to look at me—at us. I could only see his face and shoulders, but I’m sure it was him, except this time his face was white and his nose was bright red. Like a clown, kind of.”
“How long was he looking at you?”
“Only a few seconds.”
“He waved at me and went back behind the curtain again. I sat there for a long time after that waiting for him to appear again, but he never did.”
“We have to find out who he is,” said Dan. “Maybe he can help get us out of here,” and for the first time in a long time they climbed to the top of the mound together to wait for me.
From behind the curtain I listened to them talk for a while, and based on their tones of voice and sudden bursts of laughter, it was apparent that their relationship had been reinvigorated by their new mission to spot me, a sudden opportunity to bond again after what seemed to both of them, in their own private ways, a vast amount of time drifting apart. Over time, they had become individuals right next to each other, morphed into nothing more than familiar strangers, stuck together between the fire and the mound for so, so long. Now they made plans, looked to the future.
“What should we do if he peeks in again?” asked Kenndra.
Dan Kennard received his MFA in 2011 from Florida Atlantic University. He is currently at work on a book of related meta-experimental stories and lives in Olathe, Kansas. He has been published recently at Word Riot, The Offbeat, and the Tahoma Literary Review, among others.
W. Jack Savage is a retired broadcaster and educator. He is the author of seven books including Imagination: The Art of W. Jack Savage (wjacksavage.com). To date, more than fifty of Jack’s short stories and over four-hundred of his paintings and drawings have been published worldwide. Jack and his wife Kathy live in Monrovia, California.