Breath by breath, step by step, he wills his body toward the darkening skyline. Tired legs, weak legs, legs wet from trudging through the snow come to a gradual rest.
Pine trees flitter in the wind, a biting wind that blows bitterly against his exposed flesh. He raises his left hand, squeezes it into a fist with great reverence, then opens it slowly as if expecting to find something in the palm.
Eyes forge ahead. The purity of the landscape, the crispness of its perfection — of its pristine flawlessness — leaves him uneasy. That world is gone now. It is beyond the reach of people like him, the wicked and the unclean.
Slow steps backwards, he pivots as the sense of awareness coursing through his consciousness overwhelms him. Shadows reach from the ground; night presses in from above; there is nowhere for the light to go. Behind him, the path to his demon is laid out in red.
He cannot feel the cuts on his forearms, the stab wounds in his legs, or the burns across his back. He must finish this. The choice is undeniable. Fate has shown the way; spilled from his veins, the path back to the beast lay along a crimson smile trampled into the earth beneath his feet.
Step by step, breath by breath, confidence and the strength of his resolve mount to a fever pitch, but that all dissolves the moment the tent comes into view. Cautiously, he navigates the tree line. Wisps of smoke connect the angry orange and red glow of the coals to the last of the soft orange and pink hues in the evening sky.
Beside the fire there is no monster, no real demon, no creature of lore. It is just a man, and he is dead. There is no resolution in his death, no closure in watching his flesh burn. The man is gone, but his past remains.
Torn, weak, and fragile: darkness descends on his insecurities like a cocoon shielding the metamorphosis to come. Fear is suffocated with hate and contempt. Indecision is replaced by discipline and power. He sheds his skin and is reborn.
Kaitlin looked over Andrew’s shoulder and whispered into his ear, “Where on earth did you get that hideous jacket?”
“It was my camping jacket. I got it from my dad that year.”
Kaitlin’s face drew long. “That’s not the year he…?”
“Disappeared,” finished Andrew after she trailed off. “No, this was taken the year we tried to catch fish with hot dogs.”
He said it so matter-of-fact that it caught her off guard. Andrew’s honesty was bold, refreshing, and oftentimes quirky, but it was one of the things she liked most about him.
With her sudden and brief embarrassment forgotten, the infectious optimism rooted in her good nature took hold. She hugged his side and lightly touched her head to his. “We are going to have a great time. Everything is going to be perfect. I know how much this means to you.” Kaitlin leaned in closer and kissed his cheek.
They looked at the image of father and son standing arm in arm on the banks of a frozen river, smiles on their faces and the warmth of love radiant in the air around them despite the frigid backdrop. It wasn’t him or his father in the photo, but Kaitlin didn’t know that. None of them ever did.
The warm reassuring hand on his shoulder made him waver only slightly. This one was pure and genuine. She did not belong among the filth and rot of this world. He knew a place she would be free of the human disease vying for her soul, a place free from the bonds of change and the limitations of death. He knew a place where she would be safe forever.
John Paul Rousseau lives and writes in Mass.