You Never Came Back
by Leon de la Garza
The baby has been crying for days. Has it been a week? Has it been two weeks? In the mountains Jerome never counts the days. When he or Lily are thirsty, he brings water from the well. Hunting is an everyday endeavor. The sun tells the time. The seasons guarantee a motion through the years. It’s winter now. The ground has turned white along with the trees and the sky. Even the wind is white, chilling to the touch, screaming its way through the forest. He wonders at night if the howling is the wolves calling each other in the blizzard or the wind lamenting its way through the rocks and trees and the little cabin where he lives.
Lucas was born last spring. Jerome gave him his first tour through the forest not a month later. “The squirrels Larry and Gary live on this tree, all the way up there. They’re not home at the moment. They’re out looking for nuts or fruit. It was a rough winter, Lucas, you missed it, but they made it through and so did we. Over there by the creek lives a family of rabbits. I haven’t named them yet because they don’t like me, and to be honest I don’t quite like them. They drink our water!” Jerome laughed. There was no rivalry. The creek had water for all the animals, more so in spring time. Baby Lucas looked towards the running stream with wide eyes. Never had he seen such beauty. Inside Lily’s womb only the sounds passed through; The chopping of wood, the talking, the singing of birds, the scuttling of rodents, the swaying of leaves, all seemed a distant dream.
Jerome’s footsteps on the ground, brown and grey, and tan and green and rocky and smooth, made on each texture a different sound. Lucas’s eyes faltered with sleep at the monotonous step, step, step of the tour, and he finally succumbed to it and snored. Jerome kissed him and carried him back to the cabin where Lily anxiously awaited.
It seems a lifetime ago. The squirrels are now in hiding. Day and night blend seamlessly. The sun has disappeared, replaced with the grey half-light of heavy clouds. Silence permeates the day. Singing birds have migrated or died. At night Jerome wishes for silence, but rarely does it come. Owls open their eyes and hiss, and cackle and click, click, click. Who-o-o, who-o-o, they’re calling. Their big eyes shine, reflecting the little light of the moon or the cabin. They are looking for food, haunting the night with their chatter.
There are other sounds tonight: a clattering, a shivering. Baby Lucas’ loud crying travels through the trees, and if you pay close attention, under the desperate shrieking of the baby, and the quick breathing of Jerome’s sobbing, and a very soft tapping. Listen to it. Tap, tap, tap, every few seconds. Like a tiny animal tiptoeing in the snow. What is it?
They had spent eight winters in the mountains, a welcome challenge after the breeze of spring and summer. “This is how we prove ourselves, Lily.” Jerome used to say. “This is how we stand up to nature.” He hoarded deer and preserved them with salt. Hunting in the rain and snow was difficult. Visibility was limited. And yet, at the end of each day, in the past eight winters, Jerome and Lily smiled. Tired, having survived another day, they went to bed with joy. That was the choice they made when leaving the city. A difficult rewarding life. Like the old days before cellphones and the internet and roads and electricity.
Lucas has been crying now for many days. How long ago was it? On that particular morning, the Sun was shining with the sting of a winter day. Jerome had returned from scouting the forest.
“Lucas is coming down with something.” Lily said.
They made a fire and hot soup, and Lucas drank a little. At night they gathered in the warm house. Lily played guitar and Jerome sang ‘Beautiful Boy’. A song he often sang.
Close your eyes
Have no fear
The monster’s gone
He’s on the run and your daddy’s here
Lucas had started crying when the owls awakened and chattered, but upon listening to Jerome’s voice, bundled in a blanket in his arms, he quieted.
Out on the ocean sailing away
I can hardly wait
To see you come of age
The sun disappeared the next morning, and it hasn’t come back, replaced by heavy grey clouds and a white stinging wind.
“I should go into town. Lucas has a fever.” Lily said.
“I don’t know. It seems like a bad day. Wait until tomorrow. I’m sure it’ll be a better day. It can’t be any worse than it is. We can keep his temperature under control for now. It’s nothing serious.”
Lily didn’t go into town, and for a moment everything seemed alright. Lucas fell asleep for hours and when he awoke, he laughed at the faces Jerome presented him with. The next day the blizzard came down harder and Lucas woke up before dawn screaming with a high fever. Lily pressed cool water to his forehead, and it made him better for a short while.
“I’m going into town. I know the way better.” Lily said.
It was true. She knew the way better. There was nothing Jerome hated more than having to leave his sanctuary in the mountains. Lily, on the other hand, walked into town often for canned food or goodies. She threw on her heaviest winter coat, with boots and gloves and ear muffs.
“I hope to be back tomorrow.” She said, before opening the door and disappearing into the white. She hasn’t come back. How many days has it been? Has it been a week?
“You’ll be okay in no time.” Jerome held Lucas in his arms. “Soon you’ll be fine again.” But Lucas’ crying didn’t stop. Jerome had gathered supplies to last months and there was no need to leave Lucas or the cabin. He decided he would sit in the warmth and sing Lucas songs, and together they would wait for Lily.
The day she left dragged. The inescapability of the cabin made the hours long and jagged, interspersed with boredom, anxiety, and Lucas’ cries. He didn’t worry. Lily had lived through harder winters and had walked in colder winds. The absence of the sun made telling time difficult and Jerome paced back and forth, waiting for the day to end. He wished for nothing more than for night to come and bring about another morning. “We’ll be okay tomorrow. I might even go out for a while and get exercise. If I’m lucky, I’ll spot deer.”
But Lily didn’t come the following day. Lucas hadn’t stopped crying and Jerome was having trouble keeping his temperature down. Jerome didn’t sleep, only occasionally dozing off with Lucas screaming in the bedroom. Half-hour naps seemed to last seconds, and the howling of the wolves and wind lingered indifferently. The windows and the door rattled, and a hoarse low rumbling yelled at him from outside. “Horck. Horck. Horck!” The branches of trees cracked and broke, victims to the gusts of wind, crashing down like the footsteps of a giant beast.
Lucas’ eyes teared a slimy substance and his tiny nose clogged with yellow mucus. His screaming and crying resembled a feral dying cat, yowling, shrieking, gurgling and bubbling and suffering. Jerome wiped his son’s eyes and extracted as much mucus as he could, sucking it out with his own mouth and spitting it into the sink where the substance clung to the stainless steel. Days after Lily had left, he wrote in a small notebook:
Where are you? I miss you. I hope you come back soon.
But she hasn’t yet come back. Who knows how long ago she left. The trail must be closed because of the blizzard, he thought. She must be staying in town until it dies down. The first hours of each day were the only hours of peace. Lucas was quiet and sleeping only when the wolves and owls tired and fell silent. Jerome slept, too, and dreamed of a sunny day, and of Lily, and of Lucas all grown up, playing with the squirrels and the family of rabbits he never really liked. Lucas’ woke him, yowling and gurgling and again he held him and paced him. His eardrums had grown inflamed and irritated, and every time Lucas screamed a piercing pain encompassed his skull.
“Please stop crying. I’m doing everything I can. I can’t go into town, okay? I can’t leave you here in the cold. We are waiting for your mom. She’ll be here any moment, and then you’ll be okay, and we’ll sleep. Please stop crying. I don’t know what else to do.” But Lucas didn’t understand his words. Lucas’ cries forced their way into Jerome’s inflamed ears, stabbing at his eardrums like myriad rusty needles. Jerome covered his ears and muffled his agony through his teeth. A deep trembling vibrated in the air, rattling the windows and the doors. “It’s okay.” Jerome said, out of breath. He fell asleep with Lucas in his arms and was awakened minutes later when the child defecated and the miasma creeped into his nose. Jerome left the bedroom, leaving Lucas in bed behind a closed door. He wrote in the notebook:
Nights aren’t the same without you. When are you coming back? We need you. Lucas is really sick. You said you were coming back.
And at the end of the page, in almost invisible ink he wrote, and crossed out many times:
Did you die?
Days and nights blended. Sunrise and sunset disappeared, and the horizon had been lost for days. Lucas’ skin had changed from a rosy white to a pale blue and he awoke only to cry and scream and pierce Jerome’s throbbing eardrums. Jerome’s eyes had turned red. His muscles cramped and sore from shivering, and a green liquid trickled down his left ear. The freezing cold outside, isolated by the cabin, had somehow frosted the pit of Jerome’s stomach and eating became an obligation. He chewed raw salted meat when he remembered to survive. Lucas’ tiny body no longer resembled the son Jerome had known for almost a year. A pale blue boy, with his ribs pushing outwards, shrieking all hours of the day, dripping yellow snot and strands of coagulated blood. He could do nothing but keep the temperature down, an endeavor each day took more effort. Lucas’ eyes were swollen and sinking into his tiny skull, and his lips looked fat, engorged with blood, and his screaming raised Jerome’s heart rate ever faster. Four nights ago, Jerome wrote on the notebook:
Did I lose my boy? Did you replace him with a frog? Who is this bellowing creature haunting my house? Why do I have to look after it? Where did you take him? When are you coming back? I can’t leave. Lucas will die. Where did you put him? Is he out back in the storage? I looked yesterday but couldn’t find him. When are you coming home? I miss you. When are you coming home? I think Lucas is sick. Sometimes it’s the wind. Please bring him back. You said you’d come back. What is the creature in the bedroom? I’m afraid to go inside.
After writing the note, he fell unconscious to the floor. In his dreams Lily had returned, and she had medicine and a doctor with her, and the winds had died down. The doctor said it was nothing. It’s a common cold. Give him this and tomorrow he’ll be doing better. Don’t worry so much. And then the doctor pressed his fingers into his own guts and dropped dead. Insects swarmed the cabin and began feasting on the body, and a stench of rotting flesh and feces filled the air.
Jerome opened his eyes. The stench of his nightmare crossed into the cabin. Lucas was gurgling inside the bedroom. Jerome had locked the baby inside in an attempt to escape the screaming, but the sound of Lucas’ voice reverberated through the wood of the cabin. Jerome’s heart hadn’t slowed down in days and it weighed inside him like a dying elephant. Spasms struck his lungs and eyelids. A puddle of a thick brown substance had oozed out of his mouth as he slept. He wrote on the small notebook:
Something black came out of me when I slept. I hope I’m sick too.
Last night Lucas coughed out blood and a white runny substance. Jerome’s ears were infected, and green liquid poured from within them. The baby’s shrieks stabbed his head. Lucas hadn’t been able to retain any food. A pasty brown and yellow sludge covered the bedsheets and an intense pungent smell pervaded the cabin. “Stop.” Jerome said. “Please stop.” He locked Lucas in the bedroom and barricaded the door with a chair. He sat by the entrance, wishing, perhaps, to hear a knocking. The day came and went, and Jerome fell asleep with his ear pressed against the door. The wind picked up again, and the trees groaned. The wolves outside were yelping, and a bellowing erupted from deep inside the forest. Jerome woke up to the cries of his dying son. He burst into tears and vomited. His cries of despair exploded into the night and he clutched his hair and screamed in agony. His mouth dripped, and his pants were wet with urine. “I’m sorry.” He was trying to say, rocking back and forth on his knees, pounding the floor until his hands bled. “I’m sorry.” He finally whispered.
Before abandoning the cabin, he wrote another note:
You never came back.
It’s some hour after midnight. The lights of the cabin are on. Out in the forest, hiding in the snow and the howling wind, the eyes of owls are shining. They’ve gone quiet. Something is different this night, and they bury their heads in their fluffy chests. Tonight is not a night for hunting.
A wolf scampers across the light spilling from inside. It’s sprinting away from something in the darkness, catching a glance of the hunched form of Jerome. It’s lost track of its pack and an instinct scratches it from within: It must find them fast.
Jerome is sitting below a tree outside the cabin he abandoned three hours ago with his head in his hands. His teeth are clattering, and he shivers in the freezing wind. His hands are bleeding. It’s the tap, tap, tap we heard earlier. It’s the slow dripping of his blood.
Lucas is crying. An acrid smell is emanating from inside. It might attract a bear, Jerome thinks, or wolves. He only hopes if a bear destroys his home, the notes he wrote for Lily survive. He doesn’t remember what he wrote.
The wind is ceasing. The owls have turned their gaze away and the wolves are hiding in their den. A fox has been watching Jerome since he walked out into the snow. Now, it creeps away into the forest. A distant rumble has frightened it.
Footsteps are approaching. From beyond the edge of light, a towering black figure emerges. With a languid posture and glacial movements, it ducks and moves aside the branches of a tall leafless tree. The tree moans. A squirrel is shuddering on it and the long arm of the black figure takes the rodent into its hand and places it on a higher branch where it won’t be disturbed again. The figure wears an immense black robe covering its head and arms and body, and drags it in the snow.
The figure walks past Jerome, eclipsing the light of the cabin, and the wind, and the view of the clouds as it passes. Jerome watches it. His tears have dried and his hands stopped bleeding. The figure is at the door. It crouches from up high, folding into itself several times, and it enters, and as it does a festering smell penetrates the night.
The baby’s crying is now erratic with quick pauses and loud bubbling. Lucas is coughing and its minute chest collapses and rises with each breath, tearing apart and joining again the viscous yellow mucus in his lungs. The door to the bedroom is locked and barred. A thunderous crack echoes in the valley as it is broken down. Baby Lucas erupts in sobbing. He screams one time and coughs. He screams his last scream and breathes out his final breath. A last wheeze, bubbling and gurgling. The silence Jerome has longed for has arrived. There is no wind. The animals have gone quiet. Only the footsteps of the figure continue. It’s coming out again, unfolding itself into its true form, standing tall above the cabin, and Jerome, and the pine trees. In its hands Lucas’ limp body. The figure approaches Jerome and again crouches from up high; Its face invisible inside its black robes. It extends its elongated arms with the baby in its hands. The child’s skin is blue. Its eyes are open and white. Its mouth is agape, dripping yellow and red mucus.
Silence floods the forest. Not an insect is chirping. Not a bird is calling. A mantle of stillness has descended upon the land. Jerome contemplates the final state of the boy he knew as Lucas.
“Goodbye.” Says Jerome.
The black figure takes Lucas back into its bosom, and it stares down at Jerome. There is no scorn or disdain in its mysterious gaze. There is no reproach. An acknowledgement, perhaps, an understanding. As the figure leaves, it reaches and pushes branches away, and disappears into the night, careful of not disturbing the squirrel at the top of the leafless birch tree.
About the Author
Leon de la Garza is a software engineer from Mexico.
From the Editor
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