01 Feb Beyond the Blackout
I pulled into the bar parking lot and stopped the car. I sat there for a moment, letting the engine idle as I thought about what I was doing. I knew my wife and kids were at home waiting for me, but I just couldn’t bear to face them right now. The thought of spending another evening with them while avoiding the elephant in the room made me physically sick. I closed my eyes and cursed myself.
Everything was going to shit. My wife was pregnant with our fourth child and I simply wasn’t making enough money to support us. Over the past six months our quality of life had slowly declined and it was becoming harder and harder to explain to the kids what was happening. My wife and I loved each other but the financial difficulties sprouted endless arguments that could last late into the night.
In truth, I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen to us. I didn’t know how to pull my family out of this terrifying nosedive. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop thinking about that day when we’d be kicked out of our house.
I started having trouble sleeping and my mood worsened. I would find myself snapping at the kids over little things.
So instead of taking out my fear and frustrations on my family, I started to drink after work. At first it was just a beer or two, something to take the edge off. But after a month I began to stay later and later, drinking more and more. It was time I needed to think. It was a few moments of peace.
My wife hated my habit and I didn’t blame her. She never argued with me about it, but when I came home reeking of beer and whiskey, she’d get a look in her eye. That look said everything.
I never really was a drinking man before I fell on hard times. Even in college I never drank much. Certainly never to the point of being seriously drunk. I just didn’t see the point.
But now that my life was crumbling before my eyes, I found comfort in it. It was a space I could enter and push my thoughts to the edge of my tired mind.
And tonight, I needed a drink.
Before leaving work, my boss told me they were conducting layoffs in the coming weeks. He didn’t go into detail, but as I sat in my car, I realized he was unofficially informing me that I would soon be jobless.
I felt sick.
What the hell was I going to do? How was I going to provide for my family? Growing up, I never expected this. Why would I?
The thought of my kids made me terribly depressed. They depended on me, they looked up to me. How was I supposed to tell them that their father was a failure? How was I supposed to tell them daddy couldn’t pay the bills?
I pulled my car door open and forced my mind to settle. I licked my lips. I almost ran into the bar.
Music droned somewhere above me as my eyes roamed around the room. Neon beer signs lined the walls and their colors trailed in the air as I sipped my sixth rum and coke. My head was floating above my shoulders and the conversation around me slurred and streaked like wet paint. I licked my lips and they felt bloated on my face. I blinked lazily and realized I was breathing heavily.
I shifted on my bar stool and almost fell off. My mind exploded with dizziness and my stomach churned uncomfortably. How many beers had I had before starting the endless rum and cokes? I couldn’t remember.
The bar was surprising full, but I couldn’t focus on individual faces. They piled around me, trying to get in drink orders, and I felt like a rock sticking out in the middle of a moving stream. I raised my glass to my lips and drained the last of its contents.
“Hey Jack, you should go home buddy,” The bartender said, leaning in towards me out of the pool of mixing colors.
“Maybe one more and then I’ll head out,” I mumbled, raising my head to meet his gaze. His face swam before me and I closed one eye to stop it from moving.
“I think you’re done, buddy. Come on, go home to your family.”
I could feel darkness swirling around the edge of my vision.
I snorted and the bartender shook his head, “Want me to call you a cab, Jack?”
For some reason, I found this incredibly offensive and I shook my head violently, “Ah piss off. I’ll be fine.” My head felt like a bloated boulder. I dug into my pocket and pulled out a wad of crumbled cash. I threw it on the bar and stumbled towards the door.
I felt like I was walking through a movie scene I wasn’t supposed to be in. People turned to stare at me and I heard mutterings and snickers directed at my intoxicated state. I was too drunk to register shame and I shoved some punk kid aside and pushed myself out the front door.
The world rocked beneath my feet and I felt a sudden urge to vomit. I exhaled slowly and dragged my feet towards my car. I was in no state to drive. I grit my teeth and checked my watch. It was after ten. Shit. I banged into my car, still looking at my watch, and let out an angry grunt. I ran my hands over the door until I found the handle and pulled it open. I didn’t dare look at my phone and see how many missed calls I had.
I sighed as I climbed into the driver’s seat. I needed to rest for a moment, settle my head. Then I’d drive home and apologize to my wife. I’d wait to tell her about the inevitable layoffs.
But first I needed to sleep.
I closed my eyes and darkness rushed me.
“Hey there, slick.”
I pulled my eyes open. Blinding sunlight immediately forced them shut again and I rubbed my face, trying to clear my mind. To my surprise, I felt alright. In fact, I felt fantastic. I opened my eyes again and cheery sun beams warmed my face.
I was sitting in a sprawling green meadow. Birds chirped overhead and green grass rustled beneath me, a pleasant breeze chuckling through the air. I was sitting against a tree in a circular clearing with swaying forest that wrapped around a sparkling pond. Lily pads spotted the crystal surface like green paint on an artist’s palette.
It was breathtaking.
For the first time in months, I felt peace settle in around me. The blue sky overhead was cloudless and I closed my eyes as I raised my face to absorb the gentle sunlight.
“Beautiful, ain’t it?”
I snapped out of my trance and shot a look over to my left where the sudden voice had come from.
There was a man sitting against a tree, not five feet from where I sat. He was in his mid-forties and was wearing a tan suit. A silver watch glittered on his wrist and his sports jacket wrinkled against the bark. His green eyes sparkled underneath the brim of a blue baseball cap that was pulled low.
“Where am I?” I finally asked. The last thing I remembered was passing out in my car, drunk off my ass.
The man smiled to reveal perfect teeth, “Ah, don’t worry about that. Ain’t no use in it. Just relax and enjoy all this.” His slight southern accent added to the pleasing atmosphere and I unexplainably found myself comfortable around this stranger.
“My wife, I need to get back to her and my kids,” I said without much conviction. It was just so impossibly gorgeous here. I knew I needed to get home, but the overwhelming calm I felt made it hard to put action behind my words.
“They ain’t going nowhere, slick,” the man said, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath through his nose, “Just take a load off, enjoy yourself.”
Bewildered, I leaned back against my tree and ran my hands through the blades of grass. The woods filled my head with earthy scent, a combination of dirt and fresh rain on wood. The pond before me glittered like a mirror filled with diamonds and I found myself smiling.
Whatever this place was, I never wanted to leave.
All my worries seemed so trivial here. The overbearing stress I had felt earlier was gone, leaving in its place a warm comforting feeling, almost like happy nostalgia.
“I’m Russ, by the way,” the man said suddenly from his spot. I turned and saw his eyes were still closed, but a small smile lined his lips.
“I’m Jack,” I answered, watching a silver fish jump from the surface of the pond to snatch a bug.
The man, Russ, chuckled, “Oh I know who you are, slick.”
I cocked my head at him, “Who…who are you? What is this place?”
Russ adjusted the ball cap on his head before answering, “I just told you, I’m Russ. And this,” He spread his hands, “ This is just a little slice of peace, buddy. Ain’t nothing more.”
“Can I stay here?” I asked after some time.
Russ snorted, but there was no malice in it, “Fraid not, partner. That wouldn’t be good. This place isn’t meant for that. Not anymore.”
I raised an eyebrow, “Not anymore?”
Before he could answer, a noise echoed in the forest around us. It was distant and low, a single deep note that crawled up the sky and fell upon us.
It sounded like the beat of a great drum.
Russ pulled his cap up and sat a little straighter.
“What was that?” I asked as the sound faded.
Russ looked at me, his eyes uneasy, “That’s why you can’t stay here for very long.”
Suddenly, the drum sounded again…and again…and again…a constant beat that filled the woods with a single ominous note.
And for some reason, it filled me with creeping dread.
“Not good,” Russ mumbled under his breath.
“What is it?” I stressed, feeling uneasy.
Russ stood up, brushing himself off, “It’s the Whistlin’ Man. Oh, he’s bad news, slick. You don’t want to be around if he shows up.”
I wasn’t following anything he said and it must have shown on my face because he raised his hands.
“Listen, you need to leave,” He said as the drum slowly began to grow louder.
“Why? What will happen?” I asked.
Russ waved me off, “Nothing good, slick, I’ll tell you that much. You can come back, but not when he’s around.”
“B-but where IS here?!,” I sputtered as Russ advanced on me.
Before he could answer, the forest filled with a piercing cry, a sharp whistle that cut through the sky and echoed all around us. I slammed my hands over my ears as the deafening note danced across the sun rays and exploded across the meadow.
As the wavering echo faded, another whistle followed, this time lower, a kind of haunting melody that chilled me instantly. The drum was growing louder and I thought I felt the earth shiver slightly beneath my feet.
Russ turned to me, his eyes wide, “Get out of here! GO!”
He shoved me backwards and I stumbled, tripping over my feet
-and woke up gasping in my car.
I immediately opened the door and vomited into the parking lot, a great gush of hot stomach bile and gurgling rum. Tears leaked from my bloodshot eyes as I sat up and wiped my mouth. My head was splitting and I was desperately thirsty. I looked at my watch and groaned. It was a little after midnight. I took a few seconds to collect myself, thinking back on what I had just experienced.
What had just happened?
I could still hear the echoing shrill note of that chilling whistle. Or did I? I ran my hands over my face, the consequences of my night time drinking churning my stomach again. How was I going to explain this to my family? What would I tell my wife?
She was going to be furious.
I suddenly wished I was back in the meadow. The serene peace it had offered upon arrival was intoxicating. No worries, no stress, no responsibilities. Just warm sun and beautiful, accepting nature.
As I started my car, I made a mental decision.
I would do anything to go back. And now…I thought I knew how to get there.
The next two days were a waking hell. As expected (and rightly so) my wife was pissed. She wasn’t a woman who yelled or threw things. I almost wished she was. Instead, she turned to ice, barely acknowledging my existence until my due sentence was up…whenever that was. I tried to be extra active with the kids, even taking them out for ice cream, but that wasn’t enough to get my dear wife to warm to me.
It was the weekend and every minute seemed like a chore. On the outside I was super dad, making sure to always wear a smile and engage my kids in conversation and playful fun. None of this thawed my wife out and I felt the thirst return to me with a vengeance. I still hadn’t told her about the inevitable layoffs and judging by her mood, I wouldn’t until her fury had passed.
When Sunday night rolled around and she still wasn’t talking to me, I decided that after work the following day, I would return to the bar and get shit faced again. I needed to see if I could go back to that meadow. I needed it in the worst kind of way. My sanctuary of peace.
I knew it was the worst thing I could do, but the frustrations of the weekend pushed logic out of my frazzled mind. She didn’t fully understand the stress and worry I was going through. She didn’t know the weight I carried every day. It wasn’t her fault, but I expected her to cut me some slack.
As I slid into bed that night, my wife silently turning her back to me, I licked my lips and focused on tomorrow. The need was so great I almost got up and left right there and then. What little reason I still possessed forced my eyes closed instead and I tried to summon the vision of the meadow.
I could almost feel it, waiting for me right behind my eyes. If I focused hard enough I thought I could smell the greenery swirling through the swaying forest. If I shut everything out, I thought I could hear the frogs croaking at the edge of the water. Was that Russ? I was sure I had just heard him speaking to me, his southern accent melting the air like warm butter over steamed corn.
But it was all just out of reach.
For whatever reason, I couldn’t quite access that special place. I needed a catalyst.
I needed a goddam drink.
And that’s how I found myself slumped over the bar the following night. The day had seemed like an eternity, the clock indifferent to my desperation. On the way to work that morning I had almost stopped at the liquor store, but had managed to hold off.
My boss didn’t say anything to me, which I took as a good sign, and I diligently plowed through my day’s duties. My wife still wasn’t talking to me, barely looking my way as she prepared the kids for school. I had tried to give her a hug goodbye, but she brushed me off, muttering that she had to finish packing lunches.
This sparked an anger in me and I wordlessly left the house, clamping my teeth shut so I wouldn’t say anything stupid. I knew getting wasted tonight wasn’t going to repair our teetering marriage, but I had been pushed to my limit. If she wasn’t going to forgive me, then what was the point. Her morning coldness had cemented my resolve to go out tonight and I barely felt any guilt. I justified it in my mind with little effort and as I pulled into the bar parking lot, I felt a cool blanket of relief sweep over me. This was where I could let go a little. This was where I didn’t have to think about my problems.
I tipped the glass to my lips and sucked the rum off the ice cubes. I hadn’t bothered mixing my drinks tonight. I had a destination in mind and I wanted to get back there as soon as possible. Judging by the way the room swam, I was doing a pretty good job of it too.
The bar was relatively empty and I was relieved for it. A quiet tune played from the retro jukebox in the corner and I hummed along as I tapped the bar for another refill. The usual bartender was off tonight, Kenny, and I was grateful for it. He had a tendency to cut me off and I didn’t want that tonight.
I smiled at the young lady, my drink server for the evening, and muttered my thanks as she placed a fresh rum in front of me. I was trying my best to maintain my composure and the lack of people helped my cause. I didn’t want to stop drinking until I couldn’t see.
I downed half the rum in one swig and felt it slam into my stomach like a derailed train. I burped behind my hand and felt my eyelids flutter as if they were suddenly swollen. I smacked the taste from my lips and my tongue burned with alcohol. My thoughts had become hard to control, the booze filling my mind like a sinking ship.
I had been here for three hours and I felt like if I tried to stand, there was no guarantee my legs would obey.
I tipped the glass to my lips one last time and that was enough to cloud my vision with a heavy fog. Blackness pressed in on my sloshed brain and I ran a hand over my face. It felt like there was a face over my face. I giggled at the thought, but was suddenly overcome with sadness. I blinked a few times and decided it was time.
I cashed out with a mumbled thanks to the bartender and very carefully walked out to my car. The world rocked beneath my feet and the full moon was so bright I had to shut one eye against it. My head felt thick and every breath tasted like ice and spiced rum.
I stumbled to my car and managed to get the door open before collapsing into the drivers seat. I rolled my head back and shut my eyes, a small smile on my lips. I waited for it to happen.
It didn’t take long.
“Well howdy there, slick.”
I opened my eyes and gentle sunlight lit my vision. Stunning greens and blues melted together to form breathtaking beauty and my senses filled with the peaceful, now familiar meadow before me.
I was back.
The dense forest encircling this pocket of paradise swayed gently in the breeze, the leaves rustling together to form a serene soundtrack to the majesty of this hidden nature.
The grass was soft beneath me, like cool blades of emerald silk. I ran my hands through it and leaned comfortably against the tree I sat under. The pond before me was captivating in its stillness, a plate of shining silver.
I turned and saw Russ sitting a few trees over, his blue baseball cap resting high on his head. His tan suit jacket was balled behind his head and he leaned comfortably against it.
“I had to come back,” I said, “This place…” I trailed off, trying to find the words.
“It’s somethin special ain’t it?” Russ grinned, crossing his feet in front of him.
“You got that right.”
Silence passed between us and I sighed heavily, a smile filling my lips. My head emptied of worries and was filled with complete tranquility. The secluded isolation added to calming magic of the meadow and pleasant bird song danced between the trees.
Again, I was filled with the desire to never leave this place. Everything was just so perfect. It made life seem unfair in comparison. Why were things so hard? Why did misfortune and approaching despair plague my everyday? Why couldn’t I just stay here, away from all that, and close my eyes in peace? This was all I needed.
“You know,” Russ said from his spot, “As much as I enjoy your company…I worry about you.”
I snorted and looked over at him, “Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
Russ adjusted his baseball cap, “You know why. Don’t make me say it, slick.”
“Can you just let me enjoy the quiet?” I asked, shutting my eyes.
Russ grinned, “Of course, pal. Of course. But I need you to know something.”
Before he could continue, a distant drum began to beat.
I opened my eyes.
Russ pointed out into the woods, towards the noise, “That.”
I shifted, trying to block out the sound. It twisted my stomach with unease.
“What about it?” I asked softly.
Russ stared at me under the brim of his cap, “That didn’t use to be here.”
I nodded towards the distant drum, “That? The drum?”
His green eyes bore into my skull, “Not just the drum…HIM.”
I licked my lips, “Who?”
Russ’ voice dropped to a whisper, “The Whistlin’ Man. You can tell when he’s around when the drum starts. He’s looking for you, slick. And he ain’t ever going to stop.”
I shifted uncomfortably, “Who is he…what does he want?”
Russ stared out into the forest, “Do you really have to ask?”
I suddenly threw my hands up in frustration, “What are you talking about?!”
Before he could respond, the air filled with a shrieking note, a long high whistle that bore into my head like a screaming drill. Swarms of birds erupted from the trees and took flight, escaping the sound.
Russ jumped to his feet, fear written across his face, “You better scram, slick, it sounds like he’s close.”
“I don’t want to!” I shouted, climbing to my feet, “I don’t care who he is, I don’t care what he wants! Anything is better than going back to…to…out there!” I finished, jabbing my finger towards the sky.
Russ approached me as the drum beat grew louder, another whistle slicing through the meadow like a razor blade. It was the same low note as last time, the strange melody chilling me to my bone. But despite that, the thought of leaving made me want to weep. I had only just arrived, I couldn’t leave yet, I couldn’t face what awaited me on the other side.
“He doesn’t have to be here!” Russ said urgently, shooting a look over his shoulder. “You have to get rid of him! It wasn’t always like this!”
“What the FUCK are you talking about!?” I cried. The drum was deafening at this point and I felt the soil beneath my feet begin to tremble.
Russ opened his mouth to speak, but a new voice erupted from inside the forest, a horrible deep bellow of rage.
“JAAAAAAAAAACKIE! WHERE ARE YOU JACKIE!?”
Another series of long whistles followed, cracking the air like a bullwhip.
Russ’ eyes went wide and the blood drained from his face. He took a step forward and raised his hands to me.
He shoved me, hard, and I went sprawling backwards
-and woke with a jolt inside my car.
Nausea tossed my stomach like a rotten salad and I slammed the door open and emptied my gut onto the asphalt.
“NO!” I screamed, wiping my face and pounding on the steering wheel, “No no no! I can’t be here! Let me go back!” The horror of being back in the waking world, faced once again with my looming, life ruining problems filled me with absolute panic.
The night air filled with indifferent moonlight and I raised my eyes to the sky, “I can’t do this anymore! Russ! Let me come back!” I thought I could feel his presence, a tickle in the back of my head. I focused on it, begging to be swept away to the calming meadow. I didn’t care about this Whistlin’ Man, I didn’t care about what he wanted. I couldn’t face my family right now, I didn’t want to think about work or money, I just wanted to go back!
“Help me!” I cried, slamming my fist into the dashboard, “Take me BACK!”
I sat there for a moment, trembling, bloodshot eyes catching focus on everything, then nothing.
I wiped my face, “You can’t do this to me,” I muttered, “You can’t make me stay here.” I checked my watch and saw that it as midnight. Last call wasn’t for another hour and a half.
I licked my lips and ran a hand through my hair. I felt like shit, I knew I probably looked like shit too, but that wasn’t going to stop me.
“I’m coming back,” I growled, stepping out of my car, avoiding the puddle of vomit, “And I’m not going to let you send me away this time.”
My legs wobbled as I carefully made my way back inside the bar. I steadied my breathing and summoned as much willpower as I could. It wasn’t easy. My throat burned and my eyes were watering. The world rocked and swayed beneath me and I grit my teeth against it.
I pushed the bar doors open and slowly made my way back to my stool. I motioned for the bartender and she returned to me, an eyebrow cocked. She told me she was surprised to see me back and I told her my car wasn’t working. I told her a friend was coming to give me a lift and I was just coming back in to kill some time. I spaced out my words and tried my best not to slur. I asked her if she could load me up a beer and a shot.
She chewed her lip for a moment and I could see her thinking, my intoxicated state apparent no matter how good an actor I thought I was. I reached into my pocket and slid her two twenties, tipping her a wink.
“For taking such good care of me tonight,” I said.
The money shattered any moral disputes she had been fighting against and immediately cracked the top off a beer. She filled a shot glass and placed it in front of me, telling me to behave myself. I thanked her and assured her I would.
When she turned away, I slammed the shot, gasping at the sudden charge of heat. Whatever edge I had lost from vomiting returned as the rum hit my system. I snatched the beer up and sucked it down, exhaling heavily as the last drops slid onto my tongue.
I felt sick, like a soaked sponge left on the counter. I stank and my already upset stomach fought against the booze. I looked around, the room tilting and swaying, and saw there was only two other patrons. They were over in the corner, not paying attention, and to my delight I saw them wave over the bartender. It looked like they knew her. She shot a quick look at me and then went over to them.
Heart racing, consciousness blinking, I quickly leaned forward and snatched a half full bottle of rum from the counter. I chanced a look over my shoulder and saw that my act had gone unnoticed.
“You can’t get rid of me,” I mumbled, tipping the bottle to my lips, “You can’t make me stay here.”
I closed my eyes and drank.
I didn’t stop until everything went dark.
I gasped and opened my eyes. I was on my stomach, soft clovers tickling my face. I breathed them in and sighed, relief running through me. I got to my knees, pulling myself up, and surveyed the meadow.
Something was wrong.
The sun was hidden behind thick gray clouds, a blanket of dark cotton. I craned my neck and was met with nothing but silent gloom. The woods were quiet, the usual chorus of birds and bugs eerily absent. I could hear my heart hammering in my chest, a rush of beating blood in my ears.
I looked to my left, scanning the treeline, and suddenly felt sick as my eyes focused on the scene before me, a deep fear sparking in my chest.
The forest was ripped in half leaving a dark corridor of splintered ruin. It looked like an immense train had exploded through the woods, obliterating everything in its path. Fractured trees and uprooted underbrush spilled out into the clearing, the remains of nature’s vicious goring.
“What is going on,” I whispered, voice tainted with fear.
I suddenly spotted something in the pond, floating on the surface. It bobbed slightly and as I squinted to try and make out what it was, my eyes went wide and panic foamed in my throat.
“Oh no, no, no,” I cried, charging towards the water’s edge. I splashed into the shallows at full speed, tripping and then pulling myself up. I shoved lily pads aside and sloshed deeper, the horror before me gaining clarity.
“RUSS!” I screamed, reaching out for his motionless body. The water was up to my waist as I grabbed at him, pulling him up from under. He was dead weight in my arms, his head rolling against my chest as I dragged him towards shore.
“Come on, come on,” I begged, gritting my teeth, heart racing, muscles groaning. His eyes were closed and he didn’t move.
Gasping, I finally got us onto the grass where we collapsed in a rush of weight and water. I struggled to regain my breath as I got to my knees and flipped Russ over on his back.
My heart sank.
His face was a mess of cuts and dark bruises. His clothes were a tangled jumble of torn fabric and tattered cloth.
“What happened to you!?” I cried, brushing strands of wet hair from his face, “Who did this to you!?”
I felt like I already knew the answer.
I shifted myself over him, fighting panic. I placed my hands over his chest and began administering CPR.
“Please wake up,” I begged, pumping his chest, “Please, you have to wake up, don’t do this, please!”
I leaned down and blew into his mouth, tears starting to leak from my eyes. I felt helpless, alone, and filled with overwhelming despair. Why did everything always have to go to shit? Why did I always end up making things worse? Why couldn’t I escape the never ending stream of misfortune?
“PLEASE!” I screamed, now beating on Russ’ chest, “PLEASE DON’T DO THIS!”
Suddenly, in a rush of urgency, Russ’ eyes snapped open and he vomited up a great gout of pond water. He coughed and sputtered, emptying his stomach as his body convulsed.
I leaned back on my knees, unable to believe it. Relief swept over me as I exhaled, a cackle escaping my lips.
“You’re alive! Oh my God, you’re alive!” I cried, gripping Russ’ shoulder as he wiped his mouth and lay on his back.
Russ kept his eyes shut, his voice terribly weak, “Hey slick. You just can’t seem to stay away can you?”
“What happened to you? Why is everything different?” I asked.
Russ tenderly touched his beaten face before answering, “He found me. He found me with you already gone. He didn’t like that.”
“Who?” I already knew the answer.
I jerked my head to the woods, the sound of the drum robbing my attention. No. Not now. Please, not now.
Russ sighed, broken and defeated, “He’s coming back to finish the job. And if you’re here, he’s going to get you too.”
The drum was getting louder.
I leaned down and grabbed Russ’ arm, “What does he want? Why is he doing this?”
Russ closed one eyed and looked painfully at me with the other one, “He’s not doing this, Jack. You are.”
My body went cold and I said nothing, throat going dry.
Suddenly, a long rising whistle rose from the forest, first high, then dipping low. The notes bounced off the dark clouds and echoed across the meadow, filling me with dread.
Russ tried to sit up, grasping at my arm, “You can’t keep doing this,” he growled, desperation filling his voice, “You can’t keep coming here like this. He’s going to kill you!”
My eyes lined with tears and they spilled down my face. My lips trembled and I looked down at Russ, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I put my hands over my face, sobbing, “Jesus, what have I done?”
The voice cracked through the air like a clap of thunder and my heart tripped into my ribcage, a flutter of crippling fear spreading across my chest.
Another shrieking whistle, a sharp drill in my ears, boring into my skull.
The ground shook beneath my feet and I suddenly heard a roar of exploding wood and crashing underbrush from the forest. The sound was distant, but approaching the meadow at a tremendous speed.
“The Whistlin’ Man,” I whispered, my breath sour on my tongue.
I stood up and faced the treeline. Sweat coated my spine with cold fear and I licked my lips, face pale and gaunt.
“Don’t let him get you,” Russ said from the ground.
Tears ran down my cheeks as the cacophony of sound rose around me in a deafening crescendo. I closed my eyes as the drum and constant whistle blasted around me. I could hear trees crashing to the earth as the Whistlin’ Man rocketed towards me from the woods. I felt helpless and terrified, a lone man against a tsunami of power and devastation.
The Whistlin’ Man exploded from the treeline and into the meadow.
Immediately, everything went silent.
My heart counted the seconds against my chest. I squeezed my eyelids shut even tighter.
I suddenly felt the presence of someone standing directly in front of me, hot breath on my face.
“Been looking for you, Jackie,” something said, inches from my face. The voice was a low rumble like thunder in the summer.
I kept my eyes firmly shut. My knees were shaking and I felt my bladder release in a rush of terror. My lips quivered and tears dripped down my chin.
“Go away,” I croaked, my voice a dry rasp.
I felt a heavy hand rest on my shoulder, followed by a low chuckle, “Go away? Ah Jack, why would you want that? You brought me here.”
I shook my head, squeezing my eyes shut even tighter, “Not anymore.”
A hand gripped my chin, “Look at me. Open your eyes. Look at what you’ve created.”
“Please,” I sobbed, spittle spraying, “Just leave me alone.”
“Open your eyes, Jackie.”
Weeping, I slowly pried my bloodshot eyes open and the breath rushed from my lungs in a haunting wave of horror.
I was staring into my own face.
The Whistlin’ Man grinned as the recognition twisted my face with shock.
“You see?” He growled, “There ain’t nothing to be afraid of. This is just who you are.”
I took a step back, shaking, trembling, “No…no this isn’t who I am.”
He chuckled and took a step closer, “Oh…yes it is, Jack.”
I violently shook my head, “No! NO! I’m a good person! I’m NOTHING like you! I’M NOTHING LIKE YOU!”
The Whistlin’ Man suddenly stepped forward and grabbed me by the throat, his grip deadly and impossibly strong, “It’s time we finally settled this, Jackie.”
“J-just leave me alone!” I gurgled as his grip tightened around my throat.
He leaned into me, grinning, and squeezed darkness into my vision, “It’s over, Jack.”
Stars swam around me and the world began to fade.
With one last gasp, I whispered, “P-please…just let me go home.”
Right as I was about to pass out, as blackness ate my eyes, the iron grip around my throat was removed.
I gasped and fell to my knees, the meadow rushing back into focus. Color and clarity realigned and I coughed and sputtered, clutching my aching throat.
I looked up in relieved confusion and my eyes went wide.
Russ was holding the Whistlin’ Man from behind, one arm wrapped around his throat in a choke hold. He had his other arm over the Whistlin’ Man’s face with his hand shoved inside his mouth, gripping his upper jaw with commanding strength.
Sweat stood out on Russ’s face, his eyes two coals of burning fire. His voice crackled like a blazing furnace, “HE DOESN’T NEED YOU ANYMORE! LEAVE HIM ALONE GODDAMN IT!”
The Whistlin’ Man growled around Russ’ hand, fury shaking him, “I AM HIM!”
Russ’ neck muscles strained as he began to pull the Whistlin’ Man’s head backwards, howling with deafening authority, “NOT…ANY…MORE!”
Screaming with exhausted effort, Russ ripped the Whistlin’ Man’s head back between his shoulder blades in an explosion of blood of bone. I heard a sickening pop as his spine shattered, blood gushing from the now lifeless mouth.
Gasping, Russ pulled his bloody hand from the Whistlin’ Man’s jaws and shoved the dead man to the ground. Breathing heavily, he looked at me, chest heaving.
“You ok, slick?”
Shock rooted me to the ground, complete disbelief freezing me where I sat.
Crying, I got to my feet and embraced him, weeping into his chest. Russ stroked my hair and let me cry into him, his heart beating against my chest.
“Thank you,” I wept. “I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry for doing this.”
Russ pulled me away and took me by the shoulders, “You’re a lot stronger than you think, Jack. Never forget that.”
I wiped tears from my face, unable to stop more from coming, “I won’t forget. I promise I won’t. Thank you.”
Russ nodded, “Are you ready to go back?”
I nodded, sniffing.
Russ closed his eyes, “Good luck to you, slick. I’m proud of you.”
And with that, he pushed me backwards –
and I awoke with a start on the bar floor.
Faces were looking down at me, a blur of color and noise. I blinked and then everything rushed into focus. It was the bartender and the two men she had been talking to. Their faces were filled with concern and I realized they were talking to me.
“Hey, you ok?” One of the men asked, getting down on one knee and helping me sit up.
Relief washed over me in a suffocating wave and I grit my teeth as my eyes filled with tears.
I smiled up at the three of them, my head clear and focused, all traces of a hangover gone, “I’m alright, thank you. Must have slipped in my stool and bumped my head is all.”
The bartender told me they had heard a crash and looked over to see me lying on the floor, unmoving. She said it had taken them a little bit to wake me, almost to the point of calling an ambulance.
I assured them I was ok, climbing to my feet, and brushing myself off. My inexplicable calm demeanor clearly confused them to the point of not pressing me further. I thanked them for there concern and told them I was going to call a cab and go home.
After making sure I was really ok, they told me to take care of myself.
I smiled, “I will.”
That was three years ago. It’s been a long, hard road since that night, but I’m doing well. It took months for my wife to get over that horrific act of selfishness, but I’ve proven to her since then that I will never be that man again. I can’t believe she didn’t leave me and it fills me with eternal gratitude.
I’ve spent this time proving to my family that they can rely on me. I’ve shown them my resolve and we’ve grown closer, making it through those horrible early months of uncertainty. But we’re stronger now and life has begun to show promise of happiness.
I did end up losing my job, but my boss was able to secure me another with a sister company. It was an act of kindness I wasn’t expecting and it furthered me down the path of positivity.
It’s taken three years to rebuild my life to a point of hesitant optimism.
And it’s been three years since I had a drink.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it was easy, because it wasn’t. It was hard, impossibly hard, even after everything I went through. There were days I almost gave in to the temptation, but I would open up to my wife during those times of weakness and she got me through them. She gave me hope that I could change. But I had to face what I had become first.
And I will never go back to being that man.
I’ll find my own way to the meadow.
I know it’s out there, waiting for me, the path to its peaceful serenity growing more clear the longer I walk the road of recovery.
And even though I’ve come so far and made so much progress…I’m still filled with fear.
Because I know he’s out there waiting for me.
He’ll always be there.
The Whistlin’ Man.