It used to work. He flipped the switch a few more times. Everything used to work, didn’t it? He scowled at the light switch, then looked around. The sun would be behind the hill in a couple hours. He’d gotten a later start than he would’ve liked and now his left leg ached, nerve pain shooting up into his lumbar region. It was coming back to him, the time it took to get everything working again, the reasons they’d quit coming up here. He found a lantern on the back wall, shook it to make sure there was still gas in it. After a few attempts, he got it lit. Light flared up, then dimmed. He felt the vein in his right temple throb. He looked around. Everything still in order, mostly. Looked like kids or a raccoon had gotten in at some point. A few cupboards were open in the kitchen, some cans knocked over on the counter, beer bottles and cigarette butts in the sink. He sighed, thought about putting everything back in order. There was little need. He’d come here to lay down, to stop. He thought, There is little need. I’ve come here to lay down, to stop.
When he was done cleaning, he stretched, cataloguing the twinges under his rib cage, the too-hard beating in his chest. Having stopped moving, his skin went hot, sweat breaking out on his forehead. Weeks ago, he would have taken more Tylenol, trying to keep down the persistent fever. Now he knew it didn’t matter. Both forearms felt somewhat numb. A strange manifestation of neuropathy, but that was how it was with him. It had taken some time, but he’d pieced it all together. Doctors had been little help. Eventually they’d landed on psychosis. Come now. He didn’t want any of these symptoms, syndromes, or viruses. Or was it bacteria? Thank God for WebMD, he thought. His elbows itched.
He got the water running, and found the tripped breaker in the electrical panel. Soon he had the whole place humming along. It all did still work. His legs barely felt fatigued, a symptom so common by now he’d forgotten what fresh legs felt like. Perhaps it’s just spreading numbness. One of the forums he frequented said this would probably happen.
He retrieved his bag from the car, put a six-pack of beer in the musty fridge, and got out the pack of cigarettes he’d bought at the little store. After sweeping the deck, he sat at the little table his father had built 30 years earlier. He briefly wondered what he’d say about this when he got home. A picture on Instagram, maybe an artful stream of smoke rising from the smoldering tip, shimmering lake in the background. The suggestion of his hand, just in the frame. But it doesn’t matter, he remembered. I’m not going to make it back. He unwrapped the cellophane, popped the top open and ripped away the foil.
“Those will kill you, you know.”
The man jumped, startled. He could feel his laboring heart. Not long now. He looked around, saw nobody. Were delusions involved in any of his maladies? Had the cancer (or infection) spread to his brain? Sweat broke out again. He hadn’t brought Tylenol. He hadn’t brought anything, except beer, cigarettes, steak, and bacon. He thought he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, then remembered he hadn’t brought his phone. The first hour of the drive had been a strange withdrawal. He thought he could feel the distance between him and his phone, stretching thin until it finally snapped around Newport. The untethering had felt good, still did, though he wondered how his most recent, in all likelihood his final, status update was doing. “Going to the lake this weekend. Doubt I’ll be coming back.” No “LOL” or “haha.” No . Most people probably thought, “Ah, the academic has earned his summer respite. Off he goes.” Like. Not fewer than 100 likes and 25 comments, I bet.
He brought the cigarettes up to his nose, inhaled deeply. Heavenly. He hadn’t had one in years. He quit when he’d turned 40, having read somewhere reputable that the body could recover from moderate smoking, but after 40, it did so less thoroughly, exponentially increasing his odds of a fatal malady. Still, he’d hoped, as his academic and literary careers began, that he’d last well into his 70s at least. With any luck retire and remain active until his 80s. But now he knew he wouldn’t see 50. He smelled the cigarettes again, got his lighter out of his pocket. Even as a non-smoker, he carried his lighter everywhere, sometimes slipping his hand into his pocket and palming the smooth plastic for comfort.
A rustling in the bush at the corner of the cabin. He looked around to see if there was any wind, then stared at the bush. Blood squitched through his heart – he felt the pulse in the sole of his left foot, like water through a saturated sponge. A raccoon emerged from the bush.
Odd, the man thought. The sun hasn’t set. Raccoons are nocturnal. Aren’t they?
“Hey,” the raccoon said. “You gonna smoke those things or what? Can I bum one?”
The man pulled a cigarette from the pack, pinching the filter between index finger and thumb for a better grip. The raccoon wobbled across the deck and took the cigarette. The man offered to light it. The raccoon accepted. Inhaled deeply, then exhaled, with what seemed to the man like ecstasy.
“Thanks. You should split some firewood. Almanac says it’ll get chilly tonight.”
The man got up, leaving the cigarettes and lighter on the table. He followed the raccoon around the side of the cabin. Wood from years ago was still stacked in neat rows. Before they’d left, his wife and daughter would stack the rounds as he cut them. His saw buck still stood, he saw, weathered and sturdy. His daughter insisted on stacking the wood in patterns, so between dark, sappy fir and blonde aspen, shapes emerged from the stack, swirling around him like music. He felt dizzy, fuzzy. He felt as if he’d shrunk, a feeling he used to get as a spacy child, his brain disengaged enough that his physical body shrank to the size of a speck, the world looming over him.
His axe still leaned against the wood-pile. He picked it up, placed an 18-inch round on the block, set his feet, and swung the axe. The six-pound head pendulumed from his right foot, back and up, right hand sliding down the handle at the apex of the swing, meeting his left hand as the head came down, a perfect synchrony of potential energy and applied force, action and consequence. Blood moved into his heart and out again.
Thom Caraway teaches editing, book design, and creative writing at Whitworth University, where he is also the editor of the literary magazine, Rock & Sling. As Spokane’s first poet laureate, he served as editor of “Railtown Almanac: a Spokane poetry anthology.” He lives in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood, and sometimes wishes there was a lake there, with a slide all the way down to the river.
Lead photo credit: