There were two shot glasses set atop the table in the dining room. There were four chairs around the table and three of them were empty. The smell of bourbon pervaded the room. One man sat in a chair that made it so the left side of his body was facing the sliding glass door that was the portal from the dining room to the backyard. There was no light shining through the glass of that door.

A nice bottle of bourbon sat half empty on the table in front of the man. He rested his forehead against the palms of both hands. The chair across the table from him was askew; it’s backrest facing more toward the sliding glass door than toward the kitchen counter like it would have been if it were placed neatly. The only sensation more prominent in the room than the odor of aerated bourbon was the thorough silence.

Just a few minutes ago however, the room was raucous with noise. The man’s throat began to feel sore. In this moment, he remembered how someone had told him that whiskey, or bourbon, basically eats away at one’s vocal chords–like acid for your throat.

He thought of this as he tipped some more bourbon into one of the shot glasses and knocked it down. He felt the burn against his throat and the warmth advancing on his gut. He also thought that with the shot, he could actually feel himself become drunker and more dour.

He immediately began musing to himself that stripped vocal chords might actually do him a lot of good. ‘Definitely more dour’ he thought to himself as he served up another shot of the fine bourbon. It was an expensive bottle and when he went out to procure it, the evening carried with it so much hope. As the night lurched on and the liquid inside of the bottle dwindled however, so too did that hope.

Another shot. This time to hear something besides the silence all around him. He made it a point to set the bottle down hard on the wooden table when he was done pouring, and to damn near slam the shot glass back down to the surface after downing the liquid. He let out a long, audible breath that to anyone else would have signified refreshment. But it just made him feel more miserable because when he was done with the brief spectacle, the house was silent again.

There was a little over a quarter of a bottle left now but the man was still keenly aware of his situation and felt that any prospects of a turnaround–any hope of rationalizing it all towards some optimistic end–were only growing scarcer.

He thought back to when the bottle was full. There was easy conversation then, and the loneliness the man desperately wanted to scare away, was actually hiding somewhere away from his senses.

Somewhere around when the bottle was 3/4 full the conversation was beginning to turn. In retrospect, the man thought that maybe that was the time he began placing too much responsibility on the other. ‘But if that were the case’ he reasoned to himself ‘then I was expecting too much even from the very beginning.’

When the brown liquid reached the middle of the label, the night began unraveling but the man kept going because at least it wasn’t loneliness he was feeling. No, instead, as the dialogue was getting heated, there was a frantic urge to salvage the night coupled with a wild lust to prove some mercurial point.

None of the words borne of this jangled state of mind came out sweetly. Before long there was a full-fledged shouting match erupting in the usually quiet home. As the man yelled, he felt the numbness of the bourbon in his throat and a fiery whiteness in his mind. He almost felt like shouting and being hostile were the best things to be doing in the moment. Nothing else existed other than the sport of being aggressive. It somehow felt good.

As the nonsensical argument blasted on, the man began noticing a strange feeling of being in his element. There was some great satisfaction that came from raging–by any means–against the numbness that grew more prevalent with each swallow of the brown liquid.

He cursed, banged his fist on the table, and screamed until he felt a grating in his throat, but it all felt good. Like throwing unfettered haymakers non-stop in a room flooded floor to ceiling with cotton balls. When the other had enough and the shouting ran out of momentum, the bottle was half-empty.

At present however, there was a little less than a quarter of the bourbon left and there was no numbness left in the man. Only an acute longing that would not disappear. It had come out of hiding.

Consumption had always worked in the opposite way for the man before, and he grew profoundly troubled with each slug he took down. But at this point, there was no other course of action to take. He filled up his glass once again and after this shot, a new feeling seized his consciousness–fear.

The man felt fear at seeing the liquid in the bottle almost completely gone and still being so far from any kind of resolution. There was almost no hope that the man’s longing, regret, and loneliness would subside by the time the bottle was spent.

But again, there was no turning back now. The man pushed his shoulders back in his chair, bracing his arms against the heavy table.He took stock of the room and allowed himself to listen to the silence. The noiselessness did battle with his burning thoughts and at the same time, fueled them.

He took the bottle in his hand and as silently as he possibly could, poured himself the last of the bourbon. He held the bottle completely upside down for several moments so as to let every last drop consolidate, build, and then drop meagerly into his shot glass. The glass was filled nearly to the brim.

The biggest shot of the night. The man raised it to his face, craned his neck backwards, opened his mouth and tilted the contents of his little glass straight down his throat. Without a sound, he set the glass down very gently back on the table.

Then, a brilliant flash of light went off in his mind. ‘Of course, that’s gotta be it!’ he thought to himself. ‘There just wasn’t enough of it. I was sharing!’ He clung to this feeble excuse¬† as a man cast overboard a ship will cling to a life-preserver. The observation consoled him as to how the bottle could be so empty with him still feeling so hopeless.

As he thought this, he heard the faint conversation of a man and a woman as they walked towards his house out on the sidewalk. For once, the utter silence of his home worked to his advantage as he listened very carefully to the sound. The conversation grew clearer as the couple got closer to his house. Then they were just outside his door.

Then the talking became a little fainter. Then a little more faint. And fainter still as they walked past the man’s home. The man turned his attention back to what was in front of him. The bottle of nice bourbon was now empty and there were still two shot glasses set atop the table in the dining room.

Stations of the Heart Chapter 14: A Desert That Stings

Jed looked to his left. Nothing. Jed stayed staring to his left. He didn’t want to look to his right. He knew that if he saw nothing, he would have to travel the desert without a guide. Even worse, if he saw nothing beside him to the right, he knew he would never feel how he did inside the roundhouse again. Jed gulped hard. He twiddled his fingers, and licked his lips.’Of course it will be there, it has to be. We became one, I know it felt the same thing I did in there. It wants to be with me just as much as I want it.’ Jed thought to himself. He was confident now and smiled. “I feel you there beside me” he said quietly to the wind, still staring toward his left. There was no doubt in his mind that he would be one of the fortunate boys from his hometown who returned with a companion. Jed licked his lips again, closed his eyes and turned his head to the right. He opened his eyes. He saw nothing. Jed was alone, and he was doomed to be alone for the rest of his days. He fell to his knees. He couldn’t understand why he had been abandoned by the spirit. Even more confusing to Jed was hat he was so disappointed by the fact that he would be alone from here on out. He had been alone his entire life and it never bothered him in the least. Other than wandering through the desert in search of his hometown alone- which was merely a secondary concern- Jed couldn’t figure out why he had been so distraught by the concept of being alone. He was alone in his hometown and he never wanted for anything more. But now, being alone filled Jed with a hopelessness he never knew before. He knelt there on his knees, head hung low. The grass of the meadow was cool under his knees but he knew just beyond the meadow was the harsh unforgiving desert. Jed was overtaken with fear, regret, and emptiness. He turned back toward the closed door of the roundhouse. Pounding on the wall he screamed and wailed. He wanted to go back, anywhere. The roundhouse, the bridges, the forest hall, Iparel’s meadow, anywhere. Jed nearly broke his hands banging on them against the wall. His voice grinded to a wretch as he screamed savagely. In pain and exhaustion, he collapsed against the wall. Defeated again. Utterly spent, Jed’s mind went blank. He resigned. He was ready to give up and die there in the meadow, tilted up against the wall of the roundhouse, begging to be let back in. Through the nothingness that passed through Jed’s brain in this state, he heard words. The words of someone who sounded just like himself. They were the words of Lashpat, slithering back into his mind. They said ‘There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back.’ There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back. “There is only forward motion in this place, so don’t look back.” Jed chanted aloud to himself. He repeated it over and over again, each time louder until he was shouting the words into the meadow. Then he slowly rose to his feet and turned around. He could hear the howl of wind whipping sand just beyond the trees of the little meadow. The wind grew to a rush. Jed took a deep breath, faced the uncertain void, and for the sakes of Iparel and Lashpat, he moved toward it. It was by their strength and wisdom that he was able to continue on to his murky fate. As he walked into the desert, he said to himself, “Ok, what next?”

It was still night when Jed stumbled into the desert and though the three moons hung low in the sky, Jed could barely see them. The terrain was mostly flat with only a few rolling dunes so the wind whipped at will. It blew an endless stream of sand through the air that veiled the sky. The moons were in fact waning and a new day was just beyond the horizon but Jed was none the wiser due to the coverage of the airborne sand flows. Jed’s eyes were barely slit open to minimize the affect of the wind and sand. The sand under his feet was fine and was very hard to trek through. His footing faltered as soon as he lifted his other foot to take a step. It was a very tiring endeavor to make ones way across this desert and Jed felt the energy being sapped from his body with every difficult step. There were absolutely no features in this desert other than the interminably rolling dunes. Jed wondered if he was even going the right way. He couldn’t see the sky or the moons so he was very much wandering through the desert blindly. Before long he was faced with a large steep dune and since any direction was as good as any other he began climbing up it. This may not have been the wisest choice for Jed however, because the steep grade of the hill taxed Jed’s virility twice as much as the generally flat plain he was wading through before. It was cold, but Jed was sweating as he lurched up the dune. Stumbling here and there, Jed finally broke down and began scaling the slope on all fours, abandoning his humanity in a wave of hopelessness and exhaustion. ‘At least this dune will be tall enough for me to have a good look at the desert ahead once I get to the top.’ Jed clung to any hope he could in this moment. Jed was breathing heavy now, and sucking in sand with every labored heave, so he pulled his tunic up over his mouth and nose. He saw the frames of his vision grow blurry and he felt like he might collapse at any moment from fatigue, but he continued upward on hands and feet feverishly like a rabid dog. Jed closed his eyes and pushed on, and just as he felt the final drop of fuel escape from the pores on of his forehead, the sand abruptly gave way under his hands. His balance was thrown and he almost fell over, but he opened his eyes, shifted all his weight back to his feet and saw he was standing on the crest of the dune. The whipping wind seemed to have lost some of its sting atop the dune- naturally there was less sand in it at this elevated height. Still, it was difficult to see very far. Jed shielded his eyes with his hand and squinted hard. ‘What a contrast’ Jed thought as he surveyed the landscape, ‘from a lush, green, forest to a big, grey, lifeless desert.’ He wondered how two such differing terrains could exist so closely juxtaposed. He scanned the area but saw nothing but sand and the little dark shadows nestled in the crevasses of other dunes. Then, to his right he spotted an oddly shaped formation. He couldn’t tell what it was but it stuck out of the sandscape like a beacon. It was so faint that Jed almost missed it altogether so ‘It must be a long way off’ Jed concluded. Still, there was absolutely nothing else to go on in this desert. Jed caught his breath and headed toward the strange formation.

Jed, having been reinvigorated by the hope of finding some sort of direction through the desert, and a deliberate, energy-conserving march, traveled a great distance between the dune and the unknown landmark. But finally, he had reached it. It was a large rock formation. It was in the shape of a simple vase- narrowly cylindrical at the bottom, widening to something of an orb in the middle, then tapering back up to a narrow barrel at the top- not unlike the shape of his canteen. Jed wandered its perimeter, studying it until he came across a large split in the rock just below where it begins to jut out and widen in the middle. Jed found some footholds in the craggy rock and climbed up toward the split. The rock that the formation was made of was jagged, rough, and porous and Jed had to be careful as he climbed lest he feel the sting of the omni-faceted stone. He reached the split and saw that it was just big enough for him to wedge himself into. He wedged his right fist into the corner of the split’s crooked mouth. With his fist firmly in place he lifted his body upward and grabbed hold of a chunk of rock inside the mouth with his left hand. He removed his fist, braced the right hand on a sheer wall inside the mouth and raised his right foot to where his fist just was. With an easy pump of his right leg, he hauled his left leg into the mouth of the opening and he was in. It was dark inside the split and there was no real floor to speak of so Jed braced his palms and feet against the inclined innards of the opening like the spokes of a wagon wheel. He walked in this manner- an arm and a leg at a time- until he saw a thin light above him. There was another opening above him. He climbed up to the opening and stretched his hands up inside of it. His palms felt an incredibly smooth, warm, stone. He pulled himself up by his hands, then his forearms, lifted a leg onto the surface and rolled himself in. It was bright, Jed stood up and found himself inside a roughly round chamber. Moonlight flooded into the chamber but it was exclusively the light from the silver moon. Jed immediately noticed the absence of the stinging sand-wind that had been a constant throughout his occupancy of this desert. He was inside the orb-like middle of the formation itself. It was big inside, and smooth. It confounded Jed as he figured that by all rights it should have been the other way around. The outside of the rock should have been blown smooth by the grating wind and the inside should have been dangerously jagged as it was completely sheltered by the wind. Jed hadn’t the strength or the will to ponder for very long. His eyelids were heavy with fatigue and the crisp silver light of the moon that filled the chamber beckoned him to sleep. It had been a punishingly long night and one that was especially physical. Jed pulled off his tunic, folded it tightly and placed it on the concave portion of the smooth chamber wall. He sat, leaning against the subtle curve of the wall and laid his head against the folded up piece of cloth and fell asleep.

When Jed woke up, there was a clear, colorless, light filling the chamber. It was the sunlight of the morning. Jed stood up and put his tunic back on. It had been a refreshing slumber, but Jed’s mind was preoccupied with what the new day could possibly have in store for him. The sunlight invaded the chamber through an opening near the top. ‘Forward motion’ he thought to himself and decided to exit the structure through its apparent skylight. He stepped back a few feet, then ran at the curved wall in an attempt to climb it and reach the opening. He scampered up the wall a bit, jumped off it toward the opening, but slid back down in failure.He tried again, stepping back further to gain more speed, but still did not succeed. The third time he stepped back all the was to the opposite wall, ran with a full head of steam, got two great vertical steps off the wall and pushed off as hard as he could. This time he made it. His arms reached to the point of strain and his hands grabbed hold of the rim of the opening. He was hanging there by his hands in the middle of the chamber for a bit, then he pulled himself out. He found himself standing on top of the rounded portion of the formation right next to the tall, tapered, tower that led to the top. This time Jed didn’t have to scour for a circuitous route to the top because there was, in plain sight, a staircase carved out of the stone winding all the way around the cylindrical rock and up to the top. He climbed it, naturally. When he reached the top he was standing very high above the sand and dunes of the desert below. The day was bright and clear and the sandstorm was apparently over. Jed could see much further into the distance now. As he looked down at the aforementioned desert floor, he noticed that the rock under his feet had something etched into it. He knelt down, it was clearly made by someone or something. It was a simple drawing: a triangle with an ‘X’ drawn through it. Jed couldn’t even begin to decipher what (if anything) it could have meant. It was too simple a design, too vague. Still, it puzzled him and remained behind his thoughts.

Jed climbed back down into the chamber and out of the formation and continued the hunt for his hometown. The sand was still difficult to walk through and the terrain was still withholding any hints as to whether Jed was headed in the right direction. But before long Jed saw something that claimed the whole of his attention like a massive planet crashing into the sun. It was a tall staff with a triangular flag flying at its top. The triangular shape of the flag was identical to the triangle from the stone carving- two legs longer that its base- except it didn’t have an ‘X’ drawn on it. It was a faded blood-red that must have lost much of its hue in the sting-winds. The similarities struck Jed and he was too smart to believe that this flag and the drawing were a coincidence of similarity. Still, he couldn’t figure out any significant correlation. ‘One is definitely in reference to the other’ Jed deduced, ‘but what manner of reference is it?’ He stood near the flagstaff and looked forward into the landscape. He saw another flag flapping in the wind not too far off. They were markers. Jed walked over to the second staff. It was exactly like the first. He saw a third marker off in the distance and concluded that they were markers that led the way to something. At this thought, Jed’s palms became sweaty and his mouth began to salivate. He had to check his glands with a sharp mental smack lest he overflow and drown in an ocean of his own saliva. The initial conclusion he drew from the realization that these warped, weather-beaten, wooden flagstaffs was that they led to his hometown. But the psychic switch with which he checked his excitement into line was the possibility that the flagstaffs could be leading him away from his hometown…or to something even worse. The ‘X’ drawn through the flag at the canteen shaped rock formation suddenly became a warning. ‘Maybe the ‘X’ meant not to follow the flags’ Jed stirred the possibility in his mind. ‘But what else can I do? I was headed in this direction anyway.’ Jed continued. Defiance rose up in Jed. ‘Why should I alter my path just because of some stupid old gnarled pieces of wood with ratty cloth attached to them appear in it.’ Jed thought as he was marching rebelliously to the next marker. ‘And some incoherent drawing? I’ve been in this damn place too long, it’s affecting my mind. I can’t take every little insignificant detail to mean something grand in this nonsensical place. That’s absurd. I have to get home, soon.’

‘But what if you are not going toward home?’

The words reverberated in his mind, caroming against the thoughts he had hand-picked to occupy the precious space in his mind, trying to knock them out of place. The words stung Jed’s thoughts just like his body had been stung so many times in this desert by wind-whipped sand and loathsome jagged rock. But Jed wrestled them into the dirt of his mind as he continued his strong-willed if not entirely sufficiently debated trek to the third marker. Indeed there was nothing else in the desolate desert that indicated any sort of direction. ‘If these things don’t lead me back home,’ Jed concluded ‘at least they will¬† lead to something.’ The empty nothingness of the desert was getting to Jed and he began to welcome any sort of change, perilous or otherwise. Most of all, Jed didn’t want to be alone. His stomach grumbled in vain which only triggered his mind to recall that he was alone, utterly alone. Jed wiped a single tear that was substantial enough to escape evaporation by the sun which was now beaming hot, and ran the length of his face down to his chin. Jed reached the fourth marker and immediately started for the fifth. When he reached the fifth, he spotted the sixth quickly. He barely had to search for it. They were getting closer and closer together as Jed advanced. Jed didn’t know what these stoic markers were guiding him to and he became less and less hopeful that they ended at the wall of his hometown for no rational reason, but he marched on in resentful disregard for his own well-being. After all, what did Jed have left to fear? He had already explored the most frightening and intoxicating poles of his existence there in the forest and came away with nothing to show for either extremes except his life. He was cast out to try to live life as it use to be somehow. He was dulled and assured that the worst things that could happen to him have already occurred; taken from his comfortable life, shown beauty only to realize he could never see it again, given food only to be left to starve, and experienced ecstasy only to be expelled from it. Danger would be a welcome distraction and the visit of death would at least mean he wouldn’t be alone. Jed pressed on, losing count of the staffs he had passed. The sun was growing stronger by the minute and the heat that was bearing down from it intensified proportionally. Jed took his tunic off once again and wrapped it around his head like a turban to keep cool. He wanted to drink the last bit of water in his canteen but resisted lest his journey was nowhere near its end. He marched on, perspiring intensely, having passed at least a couple dozen flagstaffs until he reached their goal. Jed was hardly disappointed when he saw even more of the wretched flagstaffs formed into a large circle instead of the walls of his hometown. there were about fifteen wooden flagstaffs forming a circle around a basin of sand that sank down about thirty feet like a massive bowl. The flagstaffs were sticking out all along the ridge of the basin. Jed peered down into it but saw nothing but sand down in its center. Then, a mighty gust of wind blew Jed off the ridge and he tumbled down toward the bottom of the basin. Jed tumbled with much dumb momentum, unable to stop himself, until he rolled to the center and felt an extremely painful sting pierce the skin of his leg. Jed gathered himself, spit sand out of his mouth and examined the sand at the bottom of the basin for the source of his pain. There was nothing but fine, soft sand all around him. His eyes saw nothing that could have caused such a sharp pain in his leg, which was now letting a bit of blood from a pinprick perforation, so he got down on his hands and knees to search for the culprit. He crawled around for a little while until his right palm was suddenly and shockingly subjected to the same sting that his leg had just felt. Jed lifted the afflicted hand slowly and examined the sand directly under it. There was a small but very sharp thorn sticking out of the direct center of the sand-basin about the size of Jed’s pinky. The phrase ‘A needle in a haystack’ came to Jed’s mind. Jed looked at his palm, it began bleeding too. A few drops trickled down and fell on the miniscule thorn. That was when the ground began a gut-dropping rumble…