Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Dying Man

He might have looked as if he was already dead if I'd only taken a glance at him, but I knew he was only dying. I stared at him and his eyes stared right back. That was how I could tell he was still alive. I had never seen a dead person before – though I was sure that would change soon enough – but I felt that if he really was dead he wouldn’t be seeing me, seeing through me, that way. A dry wind blew around us. My eyes flickered while his remained steady. I tried to comfort myself, control my unease, by noting that the wind came from a direction almost directly behind where his body was lying, and there was a large piece of anonymous machinery, rusting to nothing, which blocked some of the wind as well. However, a part of me knew that he wouldn’t have blinked even if the warm wind had blown directly into his face.

Maybe he’s the source of the wind.

This thought ran through my mind and I tried focusing it away, squinting my eyes and looking at him as an object, not another human, a thinking, reasoning person, but a simple object, nothing more nor less. His features, no, its features, its shape, its texture, its color; things that combined to make it up.

The eyes.

His, yes, I decided, his eyes looked straight into mine. I kept wishing for him to look away so I could get up from my increasingly painful crouch, so I could leave him to die, so I could think of something, anything, other than those god-damned eyes.

I thought I heard a noise come from his mouth; not quite speech, only a breath. A harsh, disgusting breath. Whether the air had been going in or out him I couldn't tell for sure; other than the sound I heard there was no telling that anything had occurred between five seconds ago and now. No rise or fall in his chest or stomach. No movement whatsoever. Had he ever blinked? I didn't think he did. Otherwise I wouldn't still be staring at him. I'd be anywhere but here. Had I even heard that sound, whatever it was, or had my brain been playing a trick on me?

Impossible to tell.

I can't believe that, though, or even allow that as a possibility. Otherwise, what else was I imagining? Was I really crouching down in the middle of the wasteland over the shelter staring at this dying stranger? Of course

I was.

Why do I need to keep reminding myself of this?

His eyes moved slightly, breaking his stare. I breathed a sigh of relief and put my head down, relaxing my stiff neck muscles. How long had I been staring at him, as motionless as he? Looking back at him I saw that his head had turned away from me. His mouth was now as wide open as his eyes, which stared up at the dull, yellow clouds of sand and sky which constantly hung over the dull, yellow rocks and rusting hulks that covered the only bit of Outside I'd known all my life.

His head slowly rolled back.

I had time to get up, but I shouldn't have looked back at him at all after he had quit staring at me. I should have run, but I didn't. I can't remember now if I really could, can't remember that his stare had even been broken, all I can think of is his eyes and what they were trying to tell me. I was scared, too scared to have gotten up and gotten away. Yeah, that's it, scared.

His eyelids twitched, a hint of a squint. I felt a bit of relief and finally realized that he was scared as well. That's what they were trying to tell me, what he was trying to tell me. He was a human being and he was dying. I might have been sharing in that fear before, but fear is fear, and I don't know if there really was a difference between what I felt before and what he was feeling now.

His eyes seemed like the last bit of him that was still holding on to life. The rest of his body still hadn't moved. The only bit of movement was simply a flap of cloth moving in the breeze. A small creature, one I couldn't recognize in my peripheral vision, began pawing at his fingertips. Either he didn't notice or didn't care because his eyes remained as still as ever.

Another twitch. This one didn't seem like a squint against the sandy wind.

He felt to me like he was giving me his permission to look, so I did. The creature, still unrecognizable in full view, something that looked like it could be either some kind of mouse or chipmunk, was chewing his finger. A bit of blood dripped onto the sand and was quickly absorbed by it. I could see the pink of his flesh poking through a layer of red before it was covered by the things head as it began to chew off more. He didn't move.

I looked back into his eyes one more time, staring, keeping my eyes open through the tears. I don't know if they were from keeping my eyes open so long in the dry and dusty air or if it was because I felt sorry for him. His eyebrows moved slightly together and he squinted tight. I knew what he was saying. I knew he wanted to crawl over to me, grab me, tell me everything, every regret, every person he'd ever loved, every lesson he'd learned, but he couldn't. Slowly his eyes drifted. He died, and I saw it happen.

I stood up slowly, knees stiff. The creature looked up at me for a moment with its black, emotionless eyes, blood covering the fur around its mouth, then went back to its meal. I'm sure more would be coming later, among other animals I was more familiar with, but I wouldn't be here to see them. It crossed my mind to capture this creature and bring it back to the shelter with me to find out if the others knew what it was, but I knew I shouldn't even bother with it and to just get home as quickly as possible. I took one last look at the now dead man and headed home.

The paths I used to get through the wasteland were ones I knew very well. The network of trails that covered the grounds above the shelter were set up to try and mislead anyone trying to look for us and to prevent any random passerby from stumbling upon the entrance, not that the entrance wasn't already disguised, or that there were many people that came this way.

Metal hulks whizzed by as I ran around and sometimes through them. Strange symbols covered most of them, but I doubt anybody still alive knew what they meant. These things were all that was left from the Great War that drove my ancestors underground. The elders would tell us kids stories about the war but as I got older I began to doubt them more and more. I still listened just as intently, but only because the stories themselves were so fascinating: Kadrekya, the Tower, who could smite armies with his huge hammer; Shatra, the Beautiful, a magician who used his powers to slay many evil men and their pet abominations; Boteg, the Defiler, a disgusting wizard who cursed an entire kingdom so that all of the plants there would die and none of its animals could give birth. Just stories.

It takes a bit to get home, even taking the fastest way that I can. I can't go straight, this is drilled into us before we learn any other phrases, long before we are allowed to go outside. They know we will go outside before we are old enough, but the one rule we never broke was to never go straight home. The people from Outside would do anything to have what we have, like the man I was running from. That's why I had to kill him.

1 comment:

  1. I think it's really top-heavy. There's a lot of description of the dying man, dying until he dies, and it's not until the last three paragraphs that the world of the story is explored. If I get what you're doing with the last line, the narrator killed the titular dying man? That should come up a lot sooner. Maybe when the fellow draws his last breath, it could go "Finally, he died. I had become a murderer" or something, and then get into why it was necessary. The story needs more things to happen, but you do a nice job setting up a bleak, uncertain atmosphere.