Life Before The Wood

Winston lay peacefully in the field in front of the woods bordering the house – his “safe place”. He was thinking about former times. It was ironic that he should be doing this, considering his condition of late. His mind was so jaded these days. Everything was a blur – memory, dreams, fancies and reality had discarded all boundaries defining each and had melded, one into the other. A shifting cloud moved through the ether of his mind at random, clear in some places for some time, before morphing into a translucent, near-solid mass of obscurity and confusion. It was as if he’d lived his entire life inside this dream-state, hence had grown rather weary of trying to figure things out.
He looked out at the beautiful green field before him. He recalled a much younger self going absolutely wild with amusement at the sight of the tiny, animated creatures dancing all over the field. He used to chase those grasshoppers and butterflies amongst the tall grass, and attempt to capture them and bring them back to the house. A lifetime ago. Or perhaps just a dream. He didn’t know how or when he got here, only that this had been his home for an age.

But all of this was eons ago. Before The Pain took over. The pain was a living entity residing within the core of his physical being. It breathed with him, slept with him, woke with him. He couldn’t recall precisely when this uninvited guest came to board within his bones, only that it had been his constant companion for some time, and gave no hint of leaving any time soon.

Way off behind where he lay was the house, with him inside. He who was once Dad to Winston, he now thought of simply as The Man. The person in whose sole company he existed. Thoughts of him carried various sentiments – indifference, pity, even love, and many times fear – largely dependent on the mood of the man himself. Their days consisted mostly of gaping lengths of silence. And those were the good days. Those times, Winston would venture to sit next to him and even try to suggest some sort of game they could both employ to pass the time. But all he would get was an odd, alien look, as though the man had never realized he was not alone. On the bad days, the man would stomp angrily around the house, holding his treasured bottle of the smelly drink and occasionally crying out, “I’m so sorry!” or “Tom! Thomas, my boy!”, at which instant Winston would start and look about the room, half expecting some sort of comforting presence to engulf him. Right now he wasn’t too sure why he always reacted that way, but he was fairly certain that he did. At such dark times, Winston would go without food, as the man was in no frame of mind to prepare meals for either of them. And what did he know about cooking?

Speaking of meals…Winston strolled back up to the house, every limb in his body protesting madly at the disruption from their slumbering state. The back door stood open. He went right in and found someone sitting at the kitchen counter, looking intently at nothing. He stood staring at the stranger for a full five minutes, not sure what to do. The intruder spared him not a glance, and so he went to the living room and sat by the fireplace, his “safe place” indoors. This spot always offered the warmth he needed to soothe his aching bones, but right now it was cold and unwelcoming. He stared deeply into the empty hearth and got lost, whether in reverie or recollection, he could not tell.

Things hadn’t always been this gloomy. Winston had chancy memories of a much happier time. A time so distant, it seemed a different life altogether, or possibly a dream occurring as dreams do – barely remembered by the morning. In this other life, it wasn’t just the grumpy man around the house, and even he was not always a grouch. There was a woman too, who he thought of as Mom. She had a distinct, fruity smell about her which Winston recalled better than her long blonde hair or her striking, jade green eyes. She was always kind to him, calling him fond names and kissing him on the nose or atop his head. When she took him to see the doctor, she would hold on to him when he shook in terror while he was examined, and comfort him if he got a shot. She made his bed with soft, fluffy blankets which she would warm up near the fire on particularly chilly nights. He missed those nights because he felt so loved, and his bones never ached. He was happier. More cheerful. Younger. Dad was always happy too back then. He was never around during the day, but would always return home sometime before nightfall. He would stand at the door and watch Mom tuck Winston into his little bed and say, “Goodnight Thomas; goodnight Winston.” Ah yes, Thomas was his name. The boy that was his older brother.

As he lived in seclusion with the man all his life, save for this distant time with these other two, Winston could not be sure of what relation any of these people were to him. He assumed Thomas was his brother because they did everything and went everywhere together. They slept in the same room. He even took him to his safe place behind the house and for a time, it belonged to both of them. Thomas would put down a blanket, before lying across it on his belly, but Winston loved lying on the bare ground – loved how the grass rubbed against his skin, though it made him scratch maddeningly afterward. He would sometimes lie on his back and stare up at the clouds, wondering at those puffy things. They were young and carefree. At suppertime, Thomas ate very little, and would always offer what was left to Winston, to the apparent disapproval of their Dad. Raised voices from the man every time Thomas did so. Why was that always a problem? He sighed in discontent at his faded memory.

As vague and distorted as his recollections seemed to be, he was aware of a time pre-dating the man, a period even before Mom and Thomas came into the picture. Cold, damp and hunger prevailed, and the stench of refuse was profuse. He thought perhaps that he was abandoned somewhere when he was too young to remember anything. That would account for his always feeling different here, however homely this place had once felt with those other two in it. It would explain why he never expected anything, yet was overly, even pathetically grateful for whatever affections he did receive from them. The idea of being an adopted member of the family gave reason to the man’s maltreatment of him, and would certainly account for the clear favoritism shown the boy over him. Why was he restricted from playing with his brother’s toys? Why was he admonished and sometimes spanked whenever he went for them nonetheless? Why was he looked on with a kind of affectionate pity from them all? Even the funny caps with the drawings that the man brought home one day for both Thomas and himself – they would all point and laugh whenever he had his on.

So many questions. But more than just being the victim of some sad genesis, Winston was almost certain there was more wrong with him, something of a physical peculiarity. He was quite sure that he was at the very least, dull. This is why he always got lost in the family’s discussions where they used long words and complex sentences, yet was too embarrassed to seek clarification, and instead would go quiet while they babbled on. And they, knowing his incapacitation, usually spoke short sentences with simple words to him, and for this he was ashamed yet grateful.

Whatever the situation really was, the fact remained that he was a member of the household, and as such never loved them any less, never considered perhaps going away to see something else of the world. It was against his nature. He felt odd and out of place, yet strangely like he belonged there.

But what it would be like to meet other people! To see other forms, hear different voices to the three he knew. He tried desperately to imagine a new, different voice but could not. It was Thomas’ he loved the most. It was happy – so happy! He would sing in the kitchen while Mom did the dishes, perched up on the counter…
That counter. It was somewhere above it that the long thing lay, he was sure of it. He’d tried before to get at it and see just what it was, but was too small to reach it. It both fascinated and scared him. For some reason, it smelled so bad that he knew it was there – an unnatural, bitter smell. Only once had he caught a glimpse of it. It was the night when everything changed. The night after which he never saw those other two again. He was almost certain this part was a dream, because there were people in the house that night. Other people! Men like Dad – he didn’t know how many. Mom was screaming, Thomas was at the corner crying, and Dad was obviously very angry, but the men were all laughing and playing around with Mom, while others held Dad back. But Dad broke free and ran for the kitchen. Some of the men went after him but he emerged seconds later, shouting and holding the long thing. At this point everyone screamed even louder. A very loud and frightening bang, the likes of which he had never heard before, nor ever since, exploded in his ears. Winston had had enough. He was scared and confused, so ran upstairs and hid in his and Thomas’ room, certain that he would be chased by one of the men. But no one came after him. Then came several more of those horrifying sounds from downstairs. Winston was so terrified, he wet himself. He refused to come down for a long time, and when he did, things had changed in the house.

A buzzing fly woke him from semi-consciousness. It was getting dark now. Tired, Winston thought. So tired. He walked slowly up to the house. It was funny because he didn’t remember leaving the fireplace or going outside – or if he ever went up to the house to begin with. For some reason (unconsciously trying to avoid his dad, who was undoubtedly sitting at the kitchen counter), he troubled himself to circle round to the front. He found the front door halfway open, and poked his head around it to find the man sitting inside, holding a drink. Winston was too weary to even brace himself for an onslaught of foul mood. He came in and shut the door behind him. The man smiled slightly. “Thanks. You’re a good boy, you know”, the man said. Winston made no reply. He expected nothing more. This was a good day, it seemed. Still, better to be cautious and keep clear when a drink was in hand. He trudged across the living room to the foot of the staircase. He took one step up then paused to look at the million more ahead. He knew he couldn’t possibly make it. Still he attempted…

At the next bout of consciousness that presented itself to Winston, it was daytime and he was lying on the grassy field before the woods, looking at grasshoppers and butterflies. He lay there contemplating his disjointed life, endlessly trying to sort real from imagined or dreamed.

Far behind him at the house, the screen door suddenly banged shut, and he heard the man descend the short stair and come up behind him. Not even curiosity could motivate him to turn around and wonder at this new event. The footsteps grew louder until the man came around and was in Winston’s field of vision, blotting out the trees far ahead, the tall grass, the butterflies. It was then he noticed the long thing swinging from his hand. The man put it right up against Winston’s head where he lay on the ground. He stared long and hard at Winston, who stared right back. Something happened in his eyes just then. A shift. An adjustment from the gaze of indifference he always had on. As if a veil was lifted and he saw Winston anew. His look softened and radiated warmth and kindness and everything good, just like it once had an eternity ago. But it was gone in an instant and replaced with a fierce determination. Winston closed his eyes. He thought distantly, as if from a galaxy away, Dad, please don’t make the banging noise. He didn’t see it when his dad’s eyes filled with tears. He heard but was never able to process the words the man then spoke: “No more.”

Then he heard it. The sudden, deafening clap that caused his bowels to slacken once upon a time. He even fancied he could taste the bitter smell in his mouth. But he was never sure if he did because at that moment, he could not feel or see or smell or think. The entity known as Winston ceased to be.

Later that day the man huffed with effort as he dragged Winston’s weighty, lifeless form and wrapped it up in several old sheets he’d found. He took his time. No one came this way anymore. The doc had mentioned something before…CDS or CCD, he thought it was. It was best this way. Thank heavens Thomas was not around anymore to see this! It would have shattered the boy – they were like brothers. He proceeded to drag the body to the edge of the woods, where he’d dug a sizeable hole in the moist earth. After he had buried the corpse, he set about the house and found some pieces of plank, and a toolbox. He sat out in the patch of field before the woods – the place he would never know was Winston’s “safe place” – and busied himself with these items for the better part of an hour. When he was satisfied with his work, he returned to the burial ground and positioned the grave marker over the mound. He only did it for his little boy. He stepped back and contemplated the words chiseled on it. Yes, he thought, Thomas would have loved it. It read simply: “WINSTON. Loyal dog and friend.”


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