Max had made the decision that April morning to close up the bookshop and go away for once and for all, but he hadn’t told anyone yet, and he needed somebody to take the cat, so it was a good thing Jeffrey showed up an hour before closing.
“I think Carmilla wants to go home with you,” Max said, watching Jeffrey roam, as always, through the military books. Jeffrey didn’t reply. He took a tattered Shooter’s Bible off the top shelf and held it up.
“Do you really think this is worth ten bucks?”
“Yes,” Max said. “But you can have it for free. And the cat.”
“Book and cat. Hell, take anything else you want, too.”
“Are you feeling okay?”
“I hate cats.”
“It would do you good to have something to care for, something to be responsible for. And she needs a home.”
“But she lives here.”
“Well . . .” Max sighed. If he had to tell somebody, it might as well be crazy old Jeffrey. They’d known each other since high school—thirty-five years now. Off and on, of course, as their lives took them in different directions, until they both ended up back here in the center of New Hampshire, the middle of nowhere, back where it all began. In school, Jeffrey had been an avowed socialist, class valedictorian, and a pretty good football player, but a knee injury his first year at Duke had ended everything. He left school and wandered through the Midwest for a while, doing occasional work so he’d have enough money for pot, and then somehow or other he ended up back in New Hampshire, landing a job at a machine shop in Rochester, a job he still had. He’d stopped smoking pot a long time ago, and for twenty years now he’d spent every spare cent he had on guns, ammunition, knives, and body armor. Once Max opened the bookstore, he kept his eyes out for books Jeffrey might like, just to make sure he’d come by now and then, just to make sure he’d have someone to talk to.
“I’m going away,” Max said.
“A vacation?” Jeffrey strolled an index finger across some bindings.
Now Jeffrey was listening.
Max said, “I need somebody to take the cat. I can’t take her with me.”
“What do you mean permanent?”
“Today’s my birthday,” Max said.
“Happy birthday. But—”
“I’m fifty years old.”
“No, I mean, you can’t. Happy fucking birthday, buddy, but you’re not going to do it.”
“I am,” Max said. “I don’t honestly feel like I have any choice. It’s hard to explain. I feel awful leaving you behind, though. I do.”
“Please take the cat.”
Jeffrey threw the Shooter’s Bible to the ground and ran out the front door.
Max’s apartment sat above the bookstore, a rambling series of small rooms that had been built sometime around the end of the nineteenth century. He’d bought the whole building with the inheritance he got after his parents died on Christmas Eve twenty-two years ago, when a drunk drove a pickup truck straight into their little Volkswagen Golf on their way home from church.
“They’re in a better place now,” the priest told Max at the funeral.
Max somehow resisted the overwhelming urge to punch the sanctimonious ass in the face. He clenched his fists, but didn’t raise them; instead, he replied, “They’re not anywhere. They’re dead,” then turned and walked into the cold night and never set foot in a church again.
When he first bought the building, he’d been excited to work on it, to repair the fixtures and paint the walls and design the bookstore, which he named The Dusty Cover because he thought any used bookstore worth visiting ought not to set people’s expectations of cleanliness too high. He took great care with the few rare and valuable books that came through, but they didn’t interest him as much as the ordinary volumes did, the stray paperbacks and battered Book Club Edition hardcovers—the books that had truly been used. Loved, even. Within a few years, the store and his apartment both had a sagging, lived-in feel to them, and he had never quite finished painting or retrofitting very much of it. Now the ceilings were cracked and in some places crumbling; the walls looked like a coffee stain; the floors were scratched and soiled; and the air itself seemed to hail from another era. It was all he could have hoped for: a temple of entropy, a bell jar, a tomb.
The fluorescent light in the kitchen ceiling had long ago lost its globe. When he turned it on, the light buzzed and flickered. Max opened the refrigerator: a bottle of ketchup, a jar of Dijon mustard, two different bottles of salad dressing, a few slices of turkey, a gallon of milk, a lemon. He closed the fridge door and opened a cupboard: a box of Ritz crackers, a bag of chocolate chip cookies, a granola bar. He put them all on the counter, found a plastic bag from a stash under the sink, and packed the crackers, cookies, and granola bar into the bag. A few cans of Coke sat on top of the refrigerator, and he grabbed those, too. He liked Coke warm. It hurt his teeth less.
Much as he wanted to leave right away, he hated driving at night, so it would be best to wait till morning. In the square little living room, he turned on the TV and sat on the couch. The cushions were thin and desperately needed to be reupholstered, or—better yet—sent to the dump. The couch had been in the house he grew up in. It was one of the few things he’d salvaged from there. It had been a good, solid piece of furniture. He’d gotten a cover for it at Wal-Mart a couple years ago because he finally couldn’t stand to look at its pattern of brown and yellow lines. It was better with the drab gray cover.
On the TV, the President was giving a speech. Max turned it off. From the battered coffee table, he picked up an issue of The New Yorker. His subscription had run out months ago, but he was so far behind in reading them that it didn’t matter.
The phone rang. He walked to the kitchen and looked at the caller ID.
He answered: “Hello, Jeffrey.”
“You can’t go. I won’t let you.”
“You’ll be fine,” Max said. “I’ll leave the front door of the shop open. Do whatever you want with the place. There’s a little bit of money in the cash register. And please look after the cat. I really can’t take her with me.”
“This is the stupidest fucking thing you’ve ever done.”
“That may be true. But I’m still going.”
“Bring me with you.”
“I can’t do that.”
“What’ve I got here?”
“You’ve got your job. You’ve got . . . your guns. What about all the things you’ve wanted to do?”
“But I don’t. I don’t want anything. I just want it all to stay the same.”
“No, I don’t believe that.” Max hesitated, but then said what he’d long been thinking: “You want somebody to break into your apartment and you want to shoot them. This is what you dream about, isn’t it? Or maybe that’s not what you dream about—”
“It’s not—you fuck—I don’t dream about—”
“Maybe what you dream about is being somewhere in public and somebody, some criminal, starts threatening people, and you whip out that pistol you always have on your belt, and you blow them away and save everybody’s life. That’s what you dream about, don’t you? Being big and strong, saving the day? The hero of violence and power?”
“No shame in it,” Max said. “We all want to be a hero. Somehow.”
“Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you!”
“Good night, Jeffrey.” Max hung up. He picked up The New Yorker, but none of the words made any sense, so he tossed it back on the coffee table. He stared at the TV and thought about turning it on. No point in that.
He got up and opened the door to a walk-in closet where he kept boxes of LPs. He flipped through a bunch he didn’t care much about, albums that had seemed interesting when he was young but which he hadn’t listened to for ages and would never listen to again. (Had he really once spent money on an Air Supply record?) A few guitar chords had been haunting him all day, and he’d only just remembered what they were from. There it was—one of the first albums he ever bought: Pink Floyd’s Animals. He hadn’t listened to it for a long time, but he’d played it so many times in the last years of high school and beginning of college that it was permanently seared in his memory. He’d bought it because he liked the cover, the picture of a pig floating between smokestacks. When he first listened to it, he didn’t know what to make of it. The sounds were like nothing he’d heard before, and his ears didn’t know how to shape sense from them, but he knew there was something there, and as he kept listening it drew him back and back until certain strains wrapped around the world, and late at night, alone in his room, headphones on, he would fall asleep thinking he was somewhere, anywhere other than in his bed in his parents’ house in the middle of nowhere.
He put the record on the turntable, then lay down on the couch. He closed his eyes. The cat startled him when she jumped up on his chest. He hadn’t heard her come upstairs. He should probably feed her. Later.
Carmilla’s whining yowls pierced his sleep. For the first time in months, he didn’t remember a dream of ocean waves falling against a rocky shore. He didn’t remember dreaming of anything.
Max’s back, shoulders, and neck ached from spending the night on the couch. “I can’t feed you or you’ll puke in the car,” he said to the cat as he walked to the bathroom.
Later, after a shower and a change of clothes, he let Carmilla lap the milk left in the bowl from his Cheerios. While she was distracted, he grabbed the cat carrier from the storage room at the far end of the apartment. He closed the door in the living room so she wouldn’t be able to run off and disappear, scooped her up, and dropped her down into the plastic box. She moaned deeply as he carried her downstairs and out to his car, a ten-year-old Subaru parked in the narrow driveway next to the building. She yowled during the entire three-mile drive to Jeffrey’s apartment.
As he carried the cat up the front steps, Max noticed the police officer standing in the entranceway.
“Do you live here, sir?” the police officer asked when Max stepped inside.
“I’m bringing a cat to a friend who lives here. Why?”
“The building’s closed except to residents right now.”
“What happened? I need to bring the cat in.”
“Who are you visiting, sir?”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Which apartment did you want to go to?”
“Apartment four. Jeffrey James. Can’t I just drop the cat—”
“How do you know Mr. James, sir?”
“We’re friends. What’s happened? Can I please just—”
“I’m sorry, sir. There’s been an incident.”
“Incident? What do you mean incident?” But he knew. Visions filled Max’s mind: Jeffrey with his Sig Sauer and his AK-47. Jeffrey with his shooter’s vest packed with ammo and extra magazines, hundreds and hundreds of rounds, enough for a war—enough for an apocalypse. Going from apartment to apartment, kicking in doors as if he were a Ranger in Iraq, firing at any movement. Bang, bang, bang. You’re dead.
“Jeffrey James, sir. I’m afraid it looks like suicide.”
“Oh,” Max said, setting the cat carrier down on the floor. Carmilla had stopped moaning, apparently reconciled to her current reality. “How many other people? Did he . . . ?”
“Himself only. I’m afraid I can’t say anymore. Can I have your phone number, sir, so we can contact you? We’re still sorting things out.”
“What time did he . . . ?”
“Last night. A neighbor heard the gunshot and called it in.”
“Yesterday was my birthday.”
“I’m truly sorry, sir. If I could have your name and phone number . . .”
“Of course,” he said, and spoke the words and numbers automatically, numbers that would ring a phone in the bookstore, a phone Max would never answer again. He thanked the officer, picked up Carmilla in her carrier, and walked back to his car.
After nearly two hours of driving, his mind blank, Carmilla silent in the carrier on the passenger seat, Max realized he’d forgotten his snacks and his Coke at home. He needed gas anyway, so he stopped at a gas station and convenience store just over the Maine border, filled up, and bought some oatmeal raisin cookies, a Snickers bar, a couple of twelve-ounce bottles of Coke, a gallon of water, a bag of cat food, and a package of red plastic bowls. In the car, he let Carmilla out of the carrier and poured water into one bowl and food into another. He was sure he could find somebody who liked cats along the way. He wasn’t on any timetable. He just needed to get to the farthest shore and let whatever peace was there wash over him.
He opened a bottle of Coke for himself and quickly ate two cookies. Cookies, Karen had said, would be the death of him. In childhood and even up through his mid-twenties he’d been trim and almost scrawny, but now he had the figure of a person who’d been pregnant for a while. He’d tried to stay healthy when he’d been with Karen, but even she had said more than once that he was getting a good gut. That was a long time ago. After she left, he stopped caring.
He’d last been to the doctor eight or nine years ago, and the doctor had told him he should exercise and pay attention to his blood pressure and his cholesterol. Max nodded and did his best to look like he took it all seriously, much as he did during those last months and weeks with Karen, when she said that she worried about him, when she cried and screamed and pounded his chest and said nobody could not care about losing a child, when she told him she’d been sleeping with one of the waiters at the Thai restaurant on the corner of Main Street, when she said she was leaving, finally, for real this time.
It didn’t matter.
Carmilla, content, curled up on the back seat. When Max started the car, she perked her head up, but she seemed to have grown used to the movement, and now she let herself fall asleep as Max drove them toward the edge of the world.
Most of the winter snow had melted, trees and lawns were beginning to green, the last vestiges of mud season giving way to spring. Maine seemed somehow more alive than New Hampshire had been, more vibrant in its shedding of the cold months, its skies more blue than gray. Perhaps this was just a particularly sunny afternoon, Max thought.
He hadn’t ever driven a lot in Maine, just some trips to estate auctions and big library sales, and he always lost his way. But there was no great pressure of time right now, so it didn’t matter if he meandered off of Route 1, a road he hated purely because he’d gotten trapped in summer traffic a few times. There wasn’t much traffic today, but nonetheless, he didn’t want to drive Route 1, and so he sought out the smaller roads, ones bumpy with cracks and potholes after the frost heaves had retreated.
He stopped at some woods near Sebago Lake and let the cat out so she could relieve herself. He demonstrated for her by peeing on a tree. She was mostly terrified of this new place and its strange sounds and scents, but eventually she did what she needed to do. Max half hoped she’d dash away and he would then have a reason to be rid of her, but she didn’t stray far from him. After half an hour or so, they got back in the car and headed off, traveling back roads until, by late afternoon, Max saw signs to Brunswick and turned in that direction, hoping to find a place where he might get a good sandwich. There were open parking spaces in front of a little diner in town, so he parked the car, told Carmilla he’d only be a little while, and went inside.
He found a booth and squeezed himself into it. A waitress, probably of high school age, with black hair and radiant blue eyes, handed him a menu, said her name was Melissa, and asked him if he’d like something to drink.
“Coffee,” he said. When she brought it, he ordered a club sandwich with turkey, not toasted because, though he very much liked toasted club sandwiches, inevitably they cut his gums all to hell. She brought the sandwich quickly. It was divine.
He handed Melissa a twenty dollar bill and told her to keep the change. She smiled, apparently at a loss for words, not at all used to a 100% tip. He asked if she liked cats.
“Sure,” she said. “But I don’t have one.”
“I have a cat in my car that needs a home. She’s eight years old and very friendly, used to being around people in the bookstore that I once owned. If you’d like to take her, she’s yours.”
Melissa followed him to the car and peered through the window at Carmilla. “Are you sure?” Melissa asked.
“I can’t take her where I’m going,” Max said. He opened the door, careful not to let Carmilla slip away. He took her in his hands, but she hissed and scratched and howled. He’d never seen her so enraged, even at the vet’s office. She fought with her claws and teeth as he forced her into the carrier. “She hates the box,” Max said, meekly, as he brought it out and handed it to Melissa.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” Melissa said.
“Once she gets settled,” Max said. “She’s a good cat.”
“Thank you,” Melissa said, “for everything.”
“My pleasure.” Max went to the driver’s side, opened the door, and climbed in.
“Just keep going north,” Melissa said as Max closed the door. He couldn’t quite hear what she said next, but it sounded like, “Go to Englishman’s Bay.” He rolled down the passenger’s side window to ask her what she was talking about, but she was gone.
The woods grew deeper, darker, wilder as Max drove on and twilight fell. He put a CD into the player, a recent Bonnie Raitt album, to try to keep himself from thinking about Jeffrey, but it didn’t work for long. He stopped hearing the music, his mind straying to speculations about where in the little apartment Jeffrey had killed himself, Had he slumped on the futon in the main room? Had he sat on the twin bed in the tiny bedroom? Had he stood in the kitchen area or the bathroom? Which gun had he used? One of the pistols? The utterly illegal sawed-off pump-action shotgun he was so proud of having made? Probably that, yes. Max then thought of all the mess, the blood and brains scattered everywhere. Who would clean it up? The police? Probably not. The landlord would have to call in some sort of cleaners. He’d have to bring in painters and even perhaps carpenters, people to fix whatever the shot had ruined. It would take time. People would have to wonder what this Jeffrey James had been like, what had driven him to this point, this decision. Who had loved him? Who had cared?
Max shook his head and gritted his teeth. Beyond the car’s headlights, the world was dark now. The trees loomed among shadows. Soon, though, he found his way to the shore road where the trees were few, and the smell of the ocean filled the car. Now and then the sound of a particularly large wave crashing against the rocks made its way in between the music and the noise of the engine.
Fifty years old. What a meaningless concept, he thought. He didn’t feel any different today than he had a week ago. A pointless number, fifty. Not even old, really, not these days, when plenty of people lived to be ninety or 100. He didn’t feel any better about it, though. He feared nothing so much as age. Or, rather, he didn’t fear it; it disgusted him. The slow failures of the body. The creeping feebleness and dementia. He remembered his grandparents, their homes and bodies giving off a thick scent he forever afterward associated with growing old—a scent redolent of rotting fruit. In the store, he struggled to remain civil with elderly customers. Their eyes and minds were failing, what did they want with books? How could they possibly get any enjoyment from them? In his last year with Karen, some weeks after Melody died after only one day of life, Karen’s parents came to visit and help with things. Max got blind drunk on Jim Beam. He cursed her parents for their age, for their doddering around his house, for their oh-so-loving concern that seemed, he said, to be nothing more than senility, and swore he wouldn’t pay for them when they ended up in a nursing home, shitting their beds, mewling and puking. Karen’s parents left, and implored her to come with them, to escape Max, but she stayed a while longer.
“I didn’t mean it,” Max said in the morning, once he remembered a bit of what he’d said. Karen nodded. She believed him.
“You never really mean anything, do you?” she said. He shrugged. It was often true, but not that time.
Gas stations had become rare this far north, so Max stopped at the first one he saw when he was down to a quarter tank. He went inside the store, used the bathroom, bought a bottle of Coke, a bottle of iced tea, a bag of chocolate chip cookies, and a Snickers. A blonde young man stood behind the counter.
“How far to Englishman’s Bay?” Max asked, after getting his change.
“Another hour or so. Stay on Route 1 toward Machias, then head down to Roque Bluffs. Someone will find you there.”
“Someone will what?”
“Someone will find you there.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t worry about it, old man.”
“Hey,” Max said, “who do you think—”
“You should go. It’s very dark tonight, and you could have trouble finding your way.”
Max stared at the boy’s cold blue eyes and decided not to press the point. He’d always thought people in Maine were strange, and the farther north you went, the stranger they got. They were isolated, suspicious, stubborn—as if their lives were carved from rock.
The boy was right, though. It was very dark tonight.
Max stayed on Route 1 until somewhere near Machias, but must have missed a turn, because the road became narrower, bumpier, and then turned to dirt for a while. He didn’t think he was anywhere near what might be a town. He had always had a pretty good sense of direction, though, and his hunch that he was driving toward the ocean paid off soon enough when he reached the shore road again. He followed it down until it ended at a spot of rough grass and gravel, the driveway of a stone cabin with a few small, square windows, a roof of wooden beams, and a hand-painted sign above the door: La Maison Ravissante.
The heavy wooden front door was open, and Max stepped into a warm, softly-lit room that smelled of wood smoke and baked apples. A small girl, maybe ten years old, with auburn hair and bright blue eyes, stood with her back to a fireplace at the opposite end of the room.
“Excuse me,” Max said. “Are your parents here?”
“No,” the girl said, smiling to reveal a missing front tooth.
“I mean the people who own this place.”
From behind him, a soft voice said, “Hello.” Max turned to see a tall, rugged young man, black-haired and bearded, dressed in jeans and a gray flannel shirt.
“I’m just trying to find Roque Bluffs. Am I anywhere near there?”
“Well, that’s a relief. If I go back to the road, where do I need to turn?”
“The night is dark.”
“Yes, I know, believe me. But I need to get to Roque Bluffs.”
“No you don’t,” the young man said. “Come in. Sit down. Warm up by the fire. You’re where you need to be.”
The little girl pulled a leather easy chair up near the fireplace and gestured for Max to sit down.
“I think I’m supposed to go to Roque Bluffs.”
“No,” the young man said, placing his strong hand on Max’s shoulder. “Tonight, you need to be with us.” Gently, the young man pushed Max toward the chair. “We’ll take care of you. Let me bring you some dinner. You must be starving.”
Max wanted to say something, wanted to ask them who they were and what this place was, wanted to say that no, he wasn’t hungry, he wasn’t thirsty, he wasn’t cold—but he was very tired, and he didn’t have the stamina to say any of that. He found his way to the chair and sat down, and the warm fire was, indeed, comforting. Suddenly he was quite hungry and ravishingly thirsty. The man brought him a tray with a large glass of water and a wooden bowl filled with thick beef stew. Max ate. It was the most flavorful stew he’d ever tasted. The meat was so tender it seemed to melt on his tongue.
“My name’s Melanie,” the little girl said.
“Hello,” Max said between slurping bites of stew.
“You’re old,” Melanie said.
“Older than you, yes,” Max said. He gulped water.
“You smell old,” Melanie said.
Just as Max thought of something to say to that, he forgot what it was. The little girl laughed at him, then ran around a corner and disappeared. Max lifted the glass of water, but it fell out of his hands and spilled all over him. He reached for the bowl of stew, pulling it closer, but it slipped in his fingers and poured across his chest.
“Come along,” the young man said from behind Max. “I’ll clean you up and put you to bed.”
The man lifted Max in his arms like a firefighter come to rescue him. He carried Max upstairs to a pool of warm water and soap, then to a bed in a dark room.
When Max woke in the middle of the night, a bright moon shining onto his face through a window above the bed, he vaguely remembered his arms and legs fitting into manacles on iron chains. He laughed at the strange memory, then turned onto his side.
The chains reached from his wrists and ankles to heavy bolts in the floor.
He screamed through the night, until his voice was dust, but he couldn’t help falling back to sleep again.
He woke to music. Bright morning sunlight stung his eyes. Somewhere outside, a chorus sang. The voices were high, ethereal.
Max sat up. He was naked, with no sheet or blanket on the bed. He was not cold, though—indeed, the room’s heat was almost choking. He lifted one arm. His flesh was bruised and red where the chains bound him. The chain on his left leg was not quite long enough for him to swing himself into a sitting position on the bed.
“Hello . . . ?” he called, his voice rasping.
Some moments later, the door opened and Melanie, dressed all in white, walked in.
“Good morning,” she said.
“What are they doing to me?” Max said.
“Cleaning you up,” she said. She hopped from foot to foot and chanted, “You’re a mess, you’re a mess, you’re a mess.” She giggled.
“Please help me,” Max said.
Melanie ran to him and planted a kiss on his lips. “Help me help me help me help me help!” she screamed, then fell down on the floor laughing.
A figure appeared outside the door. “Melanie, leave the old man alone.”
Melanie walked out of the room. A woman—perhaps twenty years old—stepped inside and closed the door behind herself. Her hair was long and a very light brown, almost blonde. Her breasts were large, the nipples vaguely visible through the soft white fabric of her dress. She knelt down beside Max. Her hand rubbed his stomach, then her fingers slowly, gently moved lower.
Without even knowing what he was doing, Max swung his arm and hit her across the face, the iron manacle on his wrist slicing her lip open. The force knocked her to the floor. She held a hand to her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Max said. “But—you can’t—I don’t know why I’m here and you—”
The woman stood up. Blood had fallen onto her dress. She opened the door and walked outside.
A few minutes later, the bearded young man came into the room. His clothes were made of fur and the skins of animals.
“Why did you hurt Merissa?” he said. “She wanted to give you pleasure. She pities you.”
“What are you doing to me?” Max said.
“You came to us.”
“But why are these chains—why am I—what am I doing here?”
“It sometimes happens.”
“I had dreams of the ocean. I knew I had to get away. I knew I was . . .”
What were the words? He couldn’t remember. Other words came to him: “Getting old.”
“Is that why I’m here?”
“Perhaps,” the man said. “It sometimes happens.” He walked out of the room and closed the door behind.
Later, a pale young man with sharp, uneven features and matted, yellow hair brought a bowl of fish chowder to Max and fed him with a wooden spoon. Max didn’t speak, merely let the young man feed him, and said nothing when the young man’s lips touched his, the tongue wiping away some last bits of chowder. For the first time in many years, and against whatever remained of his will, Max found himself aroused. There was, in his nakedness, no hiding it. The young man seemed not to notice. He set a large porcelain chamber pot under Max and waited until he could take away the wastes.
Days passed, and every few hours (judging by the sun), the young man came in and fed Max the most delicious food he had ever eaten—stews and chowders and soups at first, then hardboiled eggs and cheese, then larger and larger pieces of beef and pork. Now and then Melanie peeked in the door and giggled, but no one else visited him. The young man washed him with hot water, soap, and a plump, yellow sponge. He provided a porcelain chamber pot and waited while Max shat and pissed. The young man was attentive, always ready for Max to release his wastes, always careful to clean every bit of his body.
And then, on what seemed to Max to be perhaps the eighth or ninth morning, Melanie woke him by running into the room and jumping up onto the bed while screaming, “It’s the big day! It’s the big day!”
The tall, young man who wore the furs and animal skins quickly entered, swept Melanie into his arms as she bounced, and stole her out of the room. The silent young man with matted, yellow hair then came in, carrying a wooden pail from which he fed Max a particularly large meal of pork, ham, mashed potato, carrots, turnips, and rice. “Please stop,” Max said as the young man pushed more food into Max’s mouth with the wooden spoon, but the boy did not seem to hear him, or did not care, and the feeding went on and on until Max was certain he would vomit. From a stone pitcher, the young man poured thick buttermilk into Max’s mouth. Max coughed and nearly choked on it. The buttermilk splashed all over his face, even into his eyes. The young man carried the pail and pitcher out, then returned a few minutes later with a bucket of hot water, soap, cloths, and a sponge. He spent even more time than usual cleaning Max, wiping away the remnants of the meal with the cloths, and then, with the sponge, attending to every inch of his skin. The cleaning was slow and sensuous, once again arousing Max, and this time the young man noticed, letting his hand and the sponge provide pleasure, forcing Max to close his eyes, to try to think of something else, but the food had relaxed him, and the washing had calmed him, and he could not distract himself from the gentle, rhythmic pleasure. Afterward, the boy continued to clean him, then, finally satisfied with his work, he kissed Max gently on the lips and departed.
The tall young man came in and unlocked the manacles around Max’s wrists and ankles. “Try standing up,” the man said. “Use me for support.”
Max slung his arm around the man’s shoulders and together they tried to heave him up. His muscles were weak, making his legs feel like liquid. His stomach was larger than ever before, and as he tried to stand he realized he didn’t quite know what to do with such a belly—its weight was unfamiliar to him, skewing his perception of his own center of gravity. If the young man hadn’t been holding him, Max would have fallen forward onto his face. He chuckled as the image entered his mind: himself, tipping over, rolling onto the now-massive cushion of his front.
“Hans!” the young man called, and the pale boy—He has a name, Max thought—entered. “Take the other side,” the man said.
Together, they helped Max out into the hall, where Merissa waited with a white sheet that she carefully wrapped Max in. He felt some shame in his nudity, his immense stomach, his weakness, but more shame when he saw Merissa’s bruised face and thick, slit lip. He had done that. “I’m sorry,” he whispered as she wrapped him in the sheet. She did not look into his eyes.
Everyone, even Melanie, helped get him down the stairs, with a few people below and few people behind, shuttling him like a large piece of furniture. He tried to distract himself from the pain in his hands and feet, tried to remember a song or two, something, anything to get his mind off of where he was now. (How had his stomach grown so immense and his muscles so useless in such a short time? It had only been eleven or twelve, maybe thirteen days, he was certain.) He couldn’t remember any songs. He couldn’t remember even quite how he’d gotten here, or where exactly here was.
At the bottom of the stairs, they helped him back onto his feet, and he did his best to balance and to walk. The front door of La Maison Ravissante opened, revealing a warm and sunny world. He squeezed through the door.
A few feet from the front of the building stood a large chair, a rustic throne made from heavy, dark, knotted wood. Hands jostled Max, spinning him around until he was placed just right, then pushed him down into the chair. Someone put a crown of evergreen branches on his head. It shed needles onto his forehead and down the back of his neck.
People had gathered around him—new people, all young, mostly blonde, mostly blue-eyed, dressed either in the simple white clothes he’d seen so often or some sort of animal skins. They took hold of the bottom of the chair and hoisted him above their shoulders. They carried him around to a staircase leading down to the sea.
“Where are we going?” Max said, his voice sounding odd to him, small and willowy. “What’s going on?” Melanie skipped along beside. He called out to her. “What is going to happen?”
She giggled and bounced and stuck her tongue out at him.
More people waited down on the rocky beach. Men and women, all, it seemed to Max, in their early twenties or so, all wearing animal skins and carrying tools of some sort: knives, gaffs, axes.
Little fires set in cairns dotted the beach.
The chair lowered to the ground. Water tickled Max’s toes. Ocean spray scratched his eyes. Sand and salt flared his wounds.
“The old man has arrived!” someone said.
“He’s better than the last one,” someone said. “This one was all bloody when he got here.”
“We cleaned him up, though.”
“He needs to be here.”
“We need him,” someone said.
A knife flashed, cutting below Max’s eye. Instinctively, he raised his hand to defend himself. Another knife sliced his palm.
“What are you doing to me!” he screamed, but his voice was little more than a whisper, a flash of air in the wind.
Laughter all around. Hans stepped forward, pulled down his white pants, and sprayed a stream of warm piss into Max’s face. Melanie bounced around behind everyone, singing out, “The old man is here, the old man is here, the old, old, old, old man is here!”
Merissa pressed herself against Max’s left side. She unbuttoned her shirt, bared a breast, pressed the nipple to his lips. The crowd cheered her on, voices calling out: “Is that what you want, old man?” and “Is that what you miss?”
He closed his eyes. He could not feel the fingers in his injured hand.
His brain exploded in light. Someone had hit him in the back of the head with something hard, a piece of wood or stone. He tried to turn to see, but his skull didn’t want to do what his mind commanded.
Everyone stood back. Clouds writhed across the sky. Larger and larger waves smashed onto the beach.
Melanie waded forward and climbed onto the chair with Max. She wrapped her arms around his neck, then whispered in his ear: “Remember, forever and ever and ever. You are our savior. We love you. I love you.”
Her tongue tickled his ear. Her teeth tore at the lobe. He tried to raise his arms to get her off of himself, but he didn’t have the strength. She bit deeper. The pain was hot. Her breath in his ear turned to a splash, then a high-pitched ringing that spread misery across his forehead and through his eyes and throat and heart.
Melanie knelt in the water beside him and smiled, half his ear displayed between her teeth.
The other people ran in, their tools raised high, their laughter and screams louder than the growing noise of the waves. For a moment, Max feared Melanie might be trampled, but she easily got out of the way, bounding back toward the stairs leading up to the house. His skin was slashed, his bones battered. Hans took a carving knife to Max’s genitals. It was all pain and all nothing. The world turned red and then black when they thumbed out his eyes. They left him his tongue, a fact that, somewhere in the far recess of his consciousness, provoked surprise.
He could not see the care they took when cutting open his stomach, the reverence with which they held his viscera, the gentleness with which they placed these parts of him in each flaming cairn along the shore.
He did not know that a wave knocked him from his chair and splayed him on the beach. He did not hear the people leave him, nor feel the tongues of the cats that licked his wounds. He did not know where he was, did not perceive the cold or night. For longer than anyone expected, nearly into morning, the wind carried the sound of his singing.
© 2013 by Matthew Cheney.