“Where ya going buckaroo?” Casey said, taking off his headphones and tossing them on to the desk.
“Out, I think.”
“I thought you said you were exhausted?”
“I am exhausted,” I said.
Casey picked up his phone and checked the time.
“You know it’s almost midnight, right?” he said, brushing back the hair on his head and pushed up his glasses.
“Yes, Casey, I know what time it is. I have a watch too.” I said, holding up my TIMEX and reached for the door handle,
“Wait!” he said, standing up. “Bars close in an hour, why not just drink here instead?”
Already in his pajamas, it was easy to see he wasn’t interested in having to trek across Portland to go pick up his drunk brother, again.
I put my hand on his shoulder, “I’m not going out to drink dude.”
“It’s a Saturday night, and you’re not going to drink?” he said, pushing up his glasses, “Are you buying drugs?”
“Bitch, am I bu . . .what?” I squinted, “No, you, asshat, I’m going for a walk.”
“Oh, well, don’t get stabbed, we have astronomy on Monday.”
“Will do,” I said, shutting the door behind me.
Stepping out into the empty streets the city was heavy with the smell of humidity and exhaust. Amber streetlamps buzzed over red-bricked sidewalks. Massive bodies of twentieth-century revival style buildings sighed over illuminated OPEN signs accidentally left on in the occasional shop windows. If it hadn’t been for a stray car rumbling its way down the road, it would have been easy to believe I was the only one left alive in the world. I gave the nod to the large bay windows of Optimal Self as I made my way down Congress Street, shoving my hands into my pockets. During the past week, the compulsion to wander had been slowly growing inside me like an angry seed. I needed to get out. Out of the apartment. Out of the gym. Out of my own aching skin. To quell the noise in my head that was slowly escaping.
Taking a right down Park Street, I passed like a shadow by the half-empty parking lots of the Lafayette apartment building. Wandering down into the soft orange haze of crooked streetlamps, it struck me that I had not been out like this in years. Not since Sara and I were together. Back in 2015, when I was still a sergeant of Marines. Back when I had a purpose and a family slipping through my fingertips.
I hadn’t walked far, but my feet were aching, and my left hip was screaming. My body forced me to take a seat on the granite steps of one of the historical condos down Park. I had only been off my cane for two months, since moving to Portland, and my body was still adjusting. The luminescent numbers of my watch glowed underneath an ever-ticking second hand informed me that it was twelve-thirty. Looking up towards thy sky, I noticed just beyond the limited reach of lamplight, the silver crescent of the moon was breaking free of the clouds.
Does Sara know I don’t need a cane anymore?
The question came into my head uninvited and sat uncomfortably in my throat as I tried to swallow it. Why was that important? She was six hundred miles away in Pennsylvania, getting on with life, and I’m the last person she would be thinking about. Standing up, I pushed my fingers into my hip to calm the pain and continued on. My memory of those last few years is still jumbled up in my head. Fractured, incomplete, like a puzzle missing most of its pieces. Facts, assumptions, and rumors fused together into one narrative, with only a few pictures to help fill in what I had lost. Photos of me working on a motorcycle I’d never ride, one of me alone at a bar, me drunk in a bed that wasn’t mine. In each photo, a stranger wearing my skin gazed back at the lens with an empty smile and shiny eyes.
I began to sweat inside my jacket as I crossed into the heart of Portland’s nightlife in the Old Port. Neon lights of closing bars and the few opened doors beckoned me to come in and have a drink. Inside Fore Play Sports Pub, the bar was empty save one lone man hunched over his phone with half a glass of dark ale. I felt my feet drifting towards the door, and I had to make a conscious effort to keep them on the sidewalk. However, they didn’t carry me too far down the road before I found myself in the doorway of my favorite bar, Old Port Tavern. Walking through the door, rows of pool tables stood neglected, taking in the sounds of Johnny Cash, who was singing over the speakers to nobody.
On a stack of milk crates, Khrystal sat, ignoring the loud emptiness. There was an elegance in the way she sat. Her straight rose gold hair brushed to one side, adorned with glints of bronze and silver that illuminated the dark corner of the bar. It was as if she had been made for one painting and dropped into another.
“Hey mom,” I said, startling her into a smile.
“Hey, sweetie!” she said, getting up and throwing her arms around me, “Are you okay? It’s a bit late.”
“I’m fine,” I said, “Just out for a walk is all, thought I would drop in and say hello.” She motioned for me to take a seat on of the tall chairs at the bar.
“Do you want something to drink?” she asked, “I got whiskey neat if you’d like, my treat.”
My mouth watered, and I swallowed hard against temptation and, with some effort, managed to decline, “Thanks mum, but not tonight.”
“Water it is then,” she smiled, “So tell me, where are you walking to this late at night if you’re not looking for a drink?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “I just didn’t want to stay home, started feeling claustrophobic in my own head.”
She nodded with a faraway look as if I had triggered an unpleasant memory, “I get that.”
I took a sip of my water, “Maybe I’ll go spend the night on the beach?”
“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” Khrystal said, shaking herself out of whatever had been weighing her down.
“Yeah, why not? The ocean is lovely, and it is such a beautiful night out, who knows what magic you’ll discover in the dark,” she said, glancing dreamily over the counter and out one of the wide windows across the room.
I nodded, “Sure, yeah, I think I’ll do that.” My legs began to burn to go out to the beach and be fulfilled with the promise of something magic, “How’s the night been here?”
“Quiet,” she said, “You’re the only person I’ve seen in the last hour and a half.”
“Oh, that sucks,” I said, “Why don’t you go home early?”
“I could do that if no one else shows up in the next fifteen minutes,” she said, looking at the neon rimmed clock on the wall, that let us know it was thirty past midnight.
“Well, you close up, and I’m going to make my way down to the beach,” I said, hopping out of my seat, “You deserve to get to bed early for once.”
Khrystal smiled, “So do you.”
“No rest for the wicked, or something like that,” I said.
“You’re not wicked,” she laughed. An electric sensation crawled its way around my head, memories convulsing into an incoherent babble that locked me up.
“I would disagree.”
“Honey,” she said, putting a hand on my shoulder, “You’re not wicked. Wicked people don’t hurt after they hurt someone else, and that’s the difference.”
I shrugged silently.
“You have one of the biggest hearts of anyone I’ve ever met, and I’ve been around long enough to see it,” she said, “One day you will too, but for now, go have a nice sit on the beach and listen to the ocean.”
I smiled and hugged her before heading downstairs, “Thanks Ma, love you.”
“Love you too,” she said, “be safe.”
“I will,” I said.
I followed Fore Street down to India Street, which took you straight down to the paved biking trail that leads to the Eastern Prom. The bike path started at the end of the pier, where the CAT and Carnival Cruise docked to let off tourists. Hopping the small fence that separated the trail from the beach, I stepped onto a tumble of boulders that ran gently along the shoreline. Unlike the piers, the air off of the ocean here was salty and fresh. I felt invigorated and nestled myself into a comfortable spot between the rocks. The sky was clear, and the moon’s cold reflection shimmered over the black water.
Pulling my knees to my chest, I tried to empty myself and allow the revelations to make themselves known. The ocean noise became an endless stream of pulsing static as I slipped into a shallow meditation. Minutes passed. I waited, but my thoughts remained formless. I started to get irritated. The urge to get out of the house had been eating at me all week. Not a single revelation stirred. No magic. Sitting straight up, I exaggerated deep breaths out, forcefully making sure to drop my shoulders and relax my facial muscles. I tried one more time to sit and let the words come to me on the moon-soaked beach.
Why do I keep thinking about Sara anyway? Why does it matter? I thought. Weren’t there other things to think about?
“Fucking god damn it,” I muttered to myself. Opening my eyes, I laid down between the rocks admiring my failure. I came out all this way for nothing. A small fire of inadequacy was beginning to burn in my chest. The sound of the ocean chased it back down my veins and snuffed it out. I guess I need the walk regardless. If I wasn’t going to get my epiphany, at least I had a nice place to lay my head for the night. Some people pay money to listen to the sound of the ocean before bed, but tonight I had the real deal right in front of me. Taking off my jacket, I laid it across me like a blanket. The rock underneath me was still cold, but I was able to convince myself that it would warm up the longer I lay on top of it.
A stiff breeze off the ocean swiped gently at my face. I stared into the multitude of blinking lights from the many islands across the bay. Pinpricks of red, green, and orange in the dark, going on and off like matches in the distance fighting the wind to stay lit. My eyes came to rest on a single buoy that flashed on the r eastern side of the island. The emerald green light making eyes at me from across the water.
I allowed myself to become hypnotized by its monotonous flashing. Watching the long trail of green that came and went on the water. In the stillness of my thoughts, the phrase, Cody turned out alright in the end, erupted to the surface, breaking the silence. I tilted my head in confusion at my own thoughts, Gatsby?
Cody turned out alright at the end. The words throbbed.
I sat up against the rock and pulled my jacket over my shoulders. Consciously I finished the next sentence. It is was what preyed on Cody, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams. Much like Gatsby, I had been the architect of my own undoing. But in my story, I was Daisy, the car, the gun, and that foul dust all wrapped up into one ugly package. My heart stung in my chest. As truths, I had known since the beginning began to fill me up. I had been the one who pushed Sara away. I had fought against a life that allowed me to be a husband and father in favor of being alone with my own swirling misery. Somewhere deep inside, I knew that I had wanted to be alone. No, I deserved to be alone. But, now, I wasn’t so sure.
Even after the doctors diagnosed the brain injury, it did nothing to stop the shadow that was consuming my body, that foul dust. When Sara finally left me, I felt a sense of relief. I was free and far away to become the black hole that I was turning into. Cody turned out alright at the end, is there such a thing for people like me? For people that break the hearts and souls of the ones that loved them the most? Who balances the checkbooks? Maybe there is no turning out alright in the end, there is only the end. A year ago, I would have been content with the knowledge of life fading to black, but ever since moving to the city that had changed. These people who had started to come into my life, had cast a strange magic over me. I had started to enjoy being a part of their life. I didn’t want it to end. They made me happy and I only started to be okay with that.
Sharp and familiar noises pierced the night, and I instinctively got low, pressing myself into the boulders, trying to make myself as small of a target as possible. Pulsing blood rushed into my limbs and ears, erasing the previous moment from my mind. I fell into autopilot, surveying where the gunshots had come from. I slowed my breathing and take deep, long breaths to counteract the rising heart rate to maintain for a smooth pull of the trigger. I don’t have a gun. My thoughts violently pinged between conscious and unconscious thought before locking up. Everything was static, I was a deer in the headlights.
The noise brought me back to reality.
On the far end of the beach, I could see three dark male figures in the sand staggering around near the water’s edge. They were too far away to make out any concrete details. I squeezed my pocket for my phone and carefully sliding it our making sure to keep it face down on the off chance that the glowing screen would give away my position. I watched one drop down to the sand for a moment before getting up and rolling away.
The red flash of a firecracker blasted low across the sand, and then I could hear the three men start to laugh and holler, putting their arms around one another. A deep sense of relief washed over me. It was just firework. I wiped away the beads of sweat that had begun to form on the sides of my face and took a deep breath, shaking my head. A year later and I’m still reacting like I never took the uniform off. I clicked the side of my watch, and the indigo light revealed that it was now it was ten to two.
Looking back towards the green light and found that I had lost it somewhere along with the others and sighed. Back down the beach, the three men continued setting off fireworks, and I could feel my fists clenching. Anger began snaking its way around my body. How fucking rude, I thought. What fucking assholes, who are they to fuck with me like that? I stood up and shook off the sand from my jacket. No longer able to focus, I headed home in disgust.
Cody Mower is a writer based out of Gorham, ME. After medically retiring from the Marine Corps in 2016 with a Post-Traumatic Brain Injury, he came home to Maine to sort his shattered life out. In 2019, Cody graduated from the University of Southern Maine with his B.A. in English and is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at Stonecoast. He writes and works passionately about post-military life and recovery to raise awareness on veteran’s issues. When he’s not writing or facilitating book/writing groups for vets through the Maine Humanities Council, he can be found toiling away in his garden.
His work has been published in Moxy Magazine, Entropy Magazine, Up Portland, and a small travel series called Eventually Everything about life on a traveling bookmobile. Upcoming work to appear in Love Letters to Poe, Proud to Be Volume 9, and The Society of Misfit Stories. Twitter: @HeavyistheC