There Was A Man With A Secret

There was a man with a secret, one that he did not even tell his wife.

If he did make the secret known, everything would change and chaos would ensue! The laws of physics would cause the magnetic poles to shift! Calderas everywhere would burst into a violence that would murder the skies for centuries!

Well, that sounded good, anyway. Corny and melodramatic, the perfect words for a sappy opening of one of those bad novels that you found on the side of the road after seven generations of garage sales fetched twenty-five cents for it.

There was a part of him, born of the anxiety that was pushing him to live out the ‘what-ifs’ that had been torturing his mind and keeping him awake for nights on end, a part of him that wanted to say he didn’t have a secret yet. A nice theory, one that could make for a happy kind of rationalization, sort of like those politicians who cooked the books but said it was okay because no one noticed the missing money yet.

Up to this point he’d manage to refrain from testing what all those ‘what-ifs’ actually looked like in real life. He was like The Matrix’s Neo, back when he was Thomas Anderson, caught between what he knew what was real and what he wanted to be real through the banal commons in the day. Then came the red pill, and from that point onward Thomas Anderson was well on the way to extinction.

Well, hopefully things wouldn’t get that bad for this son of man, but one couldn’t be sure when a person made the decision that was so explosive that they could tell no one about it.

Because the temptation, the yearning, wouldn’t go away until he pursued what he knew was not the best if he wanted the bliss of the everyday to survive. There was a way to die without dying. He’d heard somewhere that the soul when suppressed would run and hide, leaving a breathing corpse in its wake. He felt that if didn’t quench the yearning within him, murdering his soul was exactly would happen.

Besides, the man reasoned, he and his wife kept secrets from each other all of the time. In many ways, their marital relationship was clandestine in nature. Oftentimes, even as they spent evenings together, laughing, socializing and doing all the requisite things that married couples that were seen as happy and stable did together, he knew that behind all the laughter and smiles, there was something that she kept hidden in the recesses of her mind.

Which was only fair, because he was guilty of the same thing.

Secrets, enigmas, and puzzles. Now, that was one really awesome way to make a life with someone. One more secret on top of it all wouldn’t hurt, would it?

At least, this is the story that the man with a secret told himself as he went to do the thing that he was going to do, the thing that he shouldn’t do because what lay behind the secret was that important to him.

He pursued this secret by traveling solely on foot and without a phone or any other electronic gadget to track his whereabouts, at a time of day that was not quite light and not quite dark. Was the ambiguity of his morality system a metaphor for the atmosphere, or the atmosphere a metaphor for his morality system?

Wait, was it a metaphor, or a simile? It had been a while since his fiction writing days, unable to get around the artifice of showing and not telling and supposed rules against info dumping and other buzzwords that seemed to be more catfight than genuine critique.

Despite the dissipating sun as he walked towards his fate, the air felt hot and dry at a time of year when he remembered the nights would be crisp and cool. My, had things changed. A side of hot and fried climate change with your apocalypse stew, sir?

Did this ominous secret involve another woman? Well…. about that… the man would probably suggest, let’s just go with that ambiguously vague statement… “It’s Complicated!”

Thinking of the falsified horror that lay behind juicy gossip too tempting to pass up despite the bitterness it caused once swallowed, he laughed to himself as he veered from a well-traveled path with sure footing on smooth concrete to a more secret one where the path was rocky and uneven, unless one was familiar with the territory.

Luckily for him, man of secrets that he was, this path was more than familiar to him. In many ways it was more home to him that the one he made with his wife. Though he had not been down this way for months, once he stepped on its soiled track, everything was made clear and the doubt he had in traveling here was gone.

The man with the secret made his way down a remote unpaved road that few knew to get to his destination. Part of him was afraid of the path he was taking. Yet, this path that he was on had been gnawing at him, for weeks, ages now in his life. He’d been trying to avoid this decision to go where he was going to go, trying to put what was past behind him because that was what good stable people did. Everyone said so, at least the few sane people left on social media. Such a great motto: live in the present and bank on the future.

But yet, if he didn’t go where he was going to go, he might never have a future worth any satisfaction.

Looking both ways before he crossed the gravelly unpaved road he had taken to get here, ensuring that no one was watching, he encountered a path in the woods that should have been overgrown long ago but was not. That this path still existed in this state after all this time felt like a sign that his destination was meant to be. A sense of excitement, the kind of bubbling adrenaline that acted as an accelerant to further inflame this conviction. And so he proceeded, now entering the place of ensured secrecy that he would not speak of, no matter what the cost.

The atmosphere felt oppressive as he proceeded down the path to his destination. Perhaps it was anxiety or suppressed guilt that did it. Or maybe it was just the dry hot air that would have pressed on him regardless of whether he was good boy or bad, devil or angel, as it was the heaviness of drought-inflated heat that desiccated the moisture of the air he breathed. The entity that posed as oxygen burned his lungs, more so than even the COVID he’d experienced some time ago. He thought of this, and imagined the co-mingling of that little SARS descendant piggybacking on another little bugger that he’d come to meet under a microscope not so long ago.

Unanswered questions, and puzzles that made him realize, life was short and why not do the thing that you knew you shouldn’t, if it filled your soul?

In this parched reality of the woods sapped of its strength, paths that used to be loamy were cracked more violently than Percy’s surface pictures of Mars. The vibrancy of the woods a mere memory of forgotten days, this deterioration that he knew he’d might confront was another reason why he had not traveled here. The sense of grief grabbed at his chest even stronger than the fire that looked to eat his very breath. Seeing what was once lush and green so limp and faded was like reuniting with a long lost friend, only to find out he was on life-support in hospice smoking medicinal weed that coated the lie that death was not only agonizingly near, the last steps to the grave were nothing but agony.

Speaking of grief.

There was a lake, a body of water just off the trail that he walked on. This place too had been a fountain of memories. Something on its drought-exposed banks startled him, not because it had surprised him, but because the familiarity with which the harmless object caused a vertigo that had to have its causality rooted in the psychosomatic rather than any lingering physical ailment.

Though, given that discomfort was just a state of mind with most of it stemming from the brain anyway, what really was the difference? Did the distinction really matter, or even exist?

The object that rested on the banks was nothing more than a benign canoe, one so innocuous in nature that even he was bemused that it caused any disturbance within himself. Then again, what was trauma other than the reminder of violence taunting you when least expected?

He saw in his mind a carcass, a wailing that could not be appeased. He saw two people laughing, small enough to hide in tight places but big enough to pretend that the world was nothing but an adventure. He heard laughter, with a chorus of people who posed as friends having a good time, his wife included in the pack. Then, without warning, one of the group fell over dead, the other disappearing like a popping bubble.

He was wondering if delusions such as these were his last warning to turn back. If so, he defied their prophetic message and instead felt so fueled by this quasi-vision, that it propelled him to his last steps to his fallen destiny.

There was a murder of crows that pierced the sky in those last steps. For a moment, the sky was nothing but black in vision and violent with the attendant cawing that made him bemused by omens that filled the imagination and filled him with a cagey adrenaline.

As if on cue, once the flying posse passed, an army of woollybear caterpillars marched from underneath leaf litter so stripped of moisture that their tiny footprints surrounded him with a small but otherworldly crackle. Their season of metamorphosis so altered by the lopsided nature of climate as much as the next one, it was as though they were descending on him to inflict the first wave of penance on him for dismissing all earlier warnings.

He laughed again, between dead leaves, cranky crows and caterpillars crazed from uneven times, he really was coughing up one heck of reckoning to pass the last seconds before he faced the last few hurdles of his journey, and what he might find.

He knew that he had found the right location when he saw the earmarks of discarded oil drums, chaotic barbed wire strewn about the woods, and other kinds of obstacles that were intended to detract the occasional curious hunter and other nosy people from crossing its territories. He had been one of those nosy people and had found bounty, many years ago. But, he had not been the only one.

In the last phase before the terrain switched from deciduous ash, maples, elm and oak trees to the coniferous members of red and white pine, a copse of the flora struck out for its especially decimated state, which given the parched nature of the forest was something. The bark of a batch of trees, mostly white ash and oak, showed the scars of the recent infestation of lanternflies sucking their lifeblood from them. He’d seen this before, and the invasive species in action, smashing them and drowning them in the poison of sanitizer.

Today, in this moment, the invaders were not here, just the aftermath of their cannibalization.

The diseased trees, stripped of the foliage that should be just this side of vibrantly colored this time of year by not only the lanternfly but the subsequent invaders that feasted in the aftermath, seemed to be begging him to put them out of their slow miserable fate. He had seen some of these trees back in a time when they were vibrant and healthy, though clueless as he was, he did not have a conscious memory of any one of them and none had pierced his soul with any kind of intensity. Now, as they stood dying, he was filled with regret at his callousness and stood at attention to several taking advantage of what was most likely his last opportunity to see them alive.

But his belated appreciation and grief, solemn as it was, served to be only a distraction. Perhaps even a lofty excuse in order to avoid the last steps he was going to take. In a kind of spiritual deference, he touched the dying trees one by one and stopped to give a word of thanks, although he had no idea who was listening or who would care besides himself. Maybe, he reasoned, that was enough.

The heaviness in his chest continued to burn, a conflation of so many contradictions he couldn’t keep count. But his attention turned to his footsteps, knowing that his steps in this region needed to be carefully placed. It had been only a few months since he’d been here, yet he was sure that the various detritus was in different positions than it had been when he was last visited. More so than just an oil drum here and there rolling down the hill, it seemed as though someone had gone and rearranged the whole garbage pile deliberately. It had been too familiar before every time he had come here, arranged in piles predictable at least to him. Now, not so much.

Be careful to look for bear traps! Lame joke, but the whole thing felt absurd and he felt like he was turning into a joke himself.

Luckily, the pines showed up to get him out of his morosity. It lifted his spirits, just a little bit to see that not only they seemed to have been spared (so far) the massacre of exotic looking demonic insects. The temperature mercifully dropped in their green wondrous presence, filling his nostrils with their deeply sweet fragrance. Walking among them he could believe that oxygen was something more than a ghost species on the verge of extinction without feeling hopelessly naive.

Then he saw what he was looking for, and his spirits roared through him with blood rushing up through his head and every pore of his being.

The cabin he’d imagined was the same, with its ramshackle off-grid power gadgets. The first time he’d come here, he and another had been greeted by an angry old woman with a gun. He wondered what he’d find this time. He was hoping that the quest he sought resided there, and the burning pain of God knew what combination throbbed within every pore and as his wife would say, every chakra.

You know babe, life is all about the fire awakening within you.

It was the very words of his wife that made him take those last steps, those very last steps. She could not know what he was doing, and who he was seeing. He had to protect her from this. He couldn’t protect her from much, and badass she was, she wouldn’t want his protection, anyway. What the hell do you think I am, some kind of Rapunzel pussy cat that needs her litter changed?

Funny what the brain came up with in critical moments such as these.

Something ruffled the branches of the pine tree just next to him, shaking him with adrenaline-like force out of his zany reverie. Turning to the disturbance that had catapulted him so, he thought he was going crazy. A pair of ginormous, or at least seemed ginormous given his surprise, yellow eyes glared at him from somewhere within the tree.

Well, something was on to what he was about to do, he thought with some amusement. In a gesture of gallows humor, he waved to his new yellow-eyed friend. The response he got was the shaking of the branch and what sounded like a fluttering of wings.

At least, after all that, the accusing eyes disappeared. That meant something, right?

“You shouldn’t have come.”

He should have expected her voice, given that it represented what he’d set out to do and was all about the secret he kept. If anything, hearing her startled him more than even whatever the yellow-eyed monster was in the tree did.

“But I did. You had to know I would eventually.” He hoped his voice didn’t convey the welling of emotion in him so intense he couldn’t identify it. Anger? Fear?

Did it really matter?

He couldn’t see her eyes, with her standing by the door of the cabin. But he’d known her long enough to know that whatever they held was even more accusing than that of the flying banshee (or whatever it was) had.

“I met your friend.” He pointed to the pine tree in a vain attempt to garner humor.

“Am I supposed to care?” Well, maybe no laughing games today.

The birds’ sudden last hurrah before sunset chorused in the distance, and the aggravating heat pounded into him. At least that made for a good metaphor. Or was it a simile? Fiction was too damned impossible.

“You haven’t told anybody where you were going?” she asked in the same sharp voice. It was a voice he’d known over the years, and it was good to hear it again.

“Do you think I would?”

“Not even her?” Oh good. Their usual banter of combative questions were back. Hey, maybe climate change might take down the whole forest with the lanternflies and drought, but at least some things were still the same.

So, he’d play. “Are you nuts? Why would I drag her into this?”

“You weren’t followed?”

“Seriously? Girl, who do you think I am?”

“No phone or any other device to track you? Or mini drones that look like a bee tailing you?”

“Lady, what the hell? I’m more paranoid than you and you ask me questions like that? You want to frisk me and blast every little gnat from the sky or something so you feel better?”

Attuned to her after years and years together that aligned them more than a star chart’s north star, he knew she was laughing at him in the silence. It lasted for a second that was more split than an atom for nuclear attack, and the shadow of solemnity that greeted him returned in the next moment.

When she spoke next, she quit the pretense of banter and said simply, “You know, it isn’t over. No matter what they say.”

To which he replied even more plainly, “I know.”

She turned walked back into the cabin, but left the door to its entrance open. He hesitated to follow, on the precipice of the secret he’d come for.

“Are you coming inside?” Her head peered around the open door, glaring at him. Now, this was the invitation he’d been looking for.

So, he complied with what he knew was her authorization to proceed, walking towards the cabin to follow her inside. As he approached its entrance, the crows he’d met before screamed through the skies.

Yeah, that was an omen all right.

Then the forest went silent with dusk’s shadows, and he disappeared into the cabin like he had never been on the path of light.

You just never knew what happened behind hidden doors.


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