It was hot out, so horrifically hot, and he was sweating. The discomfort reached a level that started to pull him out of the fog, out of the dreary fugue, out of the dark unconsciousness from which he had settled. Mark slowly swam to the surface of consciousness and opened his eyes.
A bright light immediately made him shut his eyes again. Sunlight. More sensations started creeping back in addition to the uncomfortable heat. He had a headache, it was progressing toward migraine status. He felt slightly nauseous and realized that his skin was itching.
He slowly opened his eyes, allowing them to adjust to the light, the extremely bright sunlight. He was lying in the dirt, his sweat turning the particles that made contact with his skin into mud. He was filthy.
“Hey, you awake?” came a voice, older and wizened with years.
Mark looked over and saw a man under a tree maybe a few feet away, obviously homeless. His clothes were old and worn threadbare, yet he still probably looked cleaner than himself. “Why am I sleeping in the direct sunlight?”
“You were in the shade this morning. You know the sun moves throughout the day. The end result is fine, Sol woke you up when you needed to be awakened. Did you have a good sleep?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should think a little more about that.” The man was thin and wiry, but had a long beard and a full set of long, white hair.
“Where are we?”
“You know, where we are physically, isn’t always exactly where we are in our minds.”
“Where are we physically?”
“We are in the hills near Castaic. You brought a bottle out here last night, and I helped you kill it.”
“I don’t remember last night. Man, I must have really tied one on.”
“You can say that. Would you like a cigarette?” That may have been a common offering decades ago, but with the increasing price of tobacco products due to more and more taxation, cigarettes were not usually offered so freely, especially from those that had little money with which to buy them.
“Okay,” said Mark. He stood up and walked toward the old man and the offered cigarette. He had smoked for a few years while he was a teenager, but hadn’t had a cigarette in decades. If he was going down, he might as well go all the way.
After Mark put the cigarette in his mouth, the man stood up and lit it for him. When he inhaled the first hit into his mouth, he coughed a little, allowing the smoke to escape. Not to be deterred, he took another hit with much more force and then inhaled deeply. His lungs and his hangover combined forces to rebel against him. That began a fit of coughing that lasted over a minute and ended with Mark leaning over and vomiting in the dirt and weeds.
“Why are you trying to be something that you’re not?”
“I used to smoke. It’s been a while.”
“Yes, you shouldn’t always let the past define the present.”
“Any more booze left?” Mark stood up fully, dropped the cigarette on the earth, and crushed it out with his foot. Why the hell did I do that?
“No, I killed it. It was just a cheap bottle anyway, some generic rotgut bourbon. You know we’re not that far from town.”
“Yeah, we can go buy another bottle.”
“Or, you can go home, see to your dog.”
“Yeah, Eddie. I should feed him. Then we can drink again, right?”
“Well, I think something else might happen when you get home.”
“What do you mean?” Mark didn’t remember anything from the night before. He was at Oren’s house a few days ago? He intended to get an Uber home, but no one responded. He made his way to a bar, to drink a little, and maybe get a taxi. The bar was closed. He bought a bottle and hit the freeway, walking home amongst the masses cluttering the freeway. He barely remembered seeing Eddie, so he had made it home then. Yes, yes he had. He slept there, got up the next day, started drinking again, and there was no more after that.
“Young man, you told me a lot last night. I would like to give you some advice: the older you get, the fewer friends that you will have, the fewer true friends, and you shouldn’t discard them so easily. I think that you’ll find that things will go the way they need to, if you go home.”
The guy was weird and Mark didn’t want to be lectured to at all. He decided that he probably wouldn’t come back. “What’s the date?”
“February, not yet the nineteenth.”
“That’s a strange way to answer the question. Why do you care where I’m going anyway?”
“Sometimes people need to be pointed in the right direction, then fate takes over. Do you believe in fate?”
Fuck this guy. “Okay, I’m leaving.”
The old man nodded, but said nothing. Mark began walking toward the sound of traffic, and as he rounded the small hill ahead of him, he could see the freeway. It was still going to be a bit of a walk, probably a couple miles. What did he mean by the nineteenth? He hadn’t even gotten the man’s name. He turned around to look at him.
The small tree was there, offering minimal shade on the scorching hot day, but there was no old man anywhere to be seen. It was odd, but Mark wasn’t in a state of mind to care, it was more bothersome, rather than worrying.
His shorts felt uncomfortable and even...crunchy. As he walked, he looked down at them. It seemed that he had pissed himself at some point in the night and that they had become muddy, and the mud had eventually dried and hardened. He also felt his bowels rumbling. Yeah, he had forgotten about diarrhea that could often accompany a hangover. When the stomach gets used to too much alcohol, and doesn’t always force it back up, the body finds other ways to tell one to stop. He thought about stopping to take a shit amidst the weeds, but didn’t have anything to wipe himself with. He decided to try to make it home before unloading.
It was so miserably hot. His drinking from the night before had made him seriously dehydrated. Walking along the baking ground was not improving the situation and Mark felt himself getting dizzy.
After almost an hour of walking in the sun, Mark made it to a convenience store. There were many people in Castaic, most of them milling around under trees or alcoves to get out of the heat, for a slightly lower temperature in the shade. They seemed to be from all walks of life, many looked to have been used to the homeless lifestyle for a time, while many others seemed to be going through their initiation into it.
As Mark tried to enter the store, a huge man stepped in front of him. Mark was generally considered a big guy, but his size paled in comparison to the new guy. Mark was more muscular, as this guy seemed to eat more than well, but still massively larger. “You need to have money to come in here. Cash only.”
Mark pulled out his wallet and looked inside. Only a ten-dollar bill greeted him. “This okay?” he asked, showing the man the bill.
“Good luck with that.” The man smiled and moved out of his way.
The first thing Mark noticed when entering the small business was that only one row of lights was on. It seemed that the other two rows of lights were burnt out, or maybe broken. The casing was off of several of them, and they had no lightbulbs in them.
The second thing he noticed was that there were no other customers in the store. There was a woman behind the counter watching him closely. Mark made his way to the refrigerated section and grabbed a sixteen-ounce bottle of water. He put the cool plastic on the back of his neck for a second before deciding what else he wanted to buy. It was not a liquor store, so he couldn’t find any hard stuff. He decided on a five-dollar bottle of cheap wine.
When he made his way to the register, he noticed the gun. The woman had a revolver laying on the counter and her gnarled old hand was on it, not on the trigger, but still on the weapon. The barrel was pointed directly at him.
Mark set the bottles on the counter. Without touching the register, the woman said, “That will be fifty bucks.”
“What?” Mark asked incredulously.
“Fifty bucks. Fifty American dollars.”
“I don’t have fifty bucks.”
“You have to have some money or you wouldn’t have been able to come in.”
“This is price-gouging, man. That’s illegal.”
“Tell the cops, see if they want to hear about that. I can tell you now, that they won’t be caring much. They didn’t care when you assholes robbed me the other night, or when a woman was raped down the street. They don’t care. They didn’t care when some filthy assholes much resembling yourself nearly beat my husband to death for trying to protect our store.”
“That’s ridiculous. I only have ten.”
“You can have the water for ten.”
“That’s mighty greedy of you.”
“Greedy? You think that’s greedy? What about my goods? The damage done to my store. Fucking looters came in here and almost killed me, knocked my husband senseless. I lost a lot of goods. Do you care about that? I have to pay Al to stay outside and only allow one person in at a time. I’m one of the few businesses open now. I’m making up for my damn losses.”
“Fine, I’ll pay with my bank card.”
“Sorry, the system’s down. No debit or credit.”
“You have an ATM here?”
“Any ATMs around are completely out of cash, a few of them were actually stolen. You think the banks are keeping up with that?”
“Dammit,” said Mark.
“Look,” said the woman, “If you come back, you may want to consider trade. I’m not sure how much longer cash will be worth anything. I’m considering going strictly to trade. Gold will be nice, if you have any.”
“I don’t. I guess I’ll have to come back and buy all your wine with cash very soon then.”
“There’s food here. Why are you worried about drinking?”
“A man has got to have priorities,” said Mark.
Mark was merely twenty feet away from the store when he finished the meager amount of water that he received for ten dollars. It did make him feel a little better, a little more alive, less dehydrated. He was looking around for a recycling bin when he realized it didn’t matter, and just dropped the bottle on the ground.
He had over a thousand bucks hidden in his apartment, for emergencies. Even though it would be worth much less than it had been worth a few days ago, he could go back and get some wine and beer. He also hoped that there was some booze at his apartment. He didn’t remember there being any, but there was a blackout period, maybe he had acquired some at a certain point and left it at his apartment.
Eddie was there. It would be great to see Eddie. Mark decided that he would drink at home that day, spend some time with his dog, maybe blast some music for the whole complex to hear again.
As he reached the gate, he saw the postal truck that he had abandoned a week prior. It did not look the same. It was completely cleared out, the back doors ripped off, not a window remaining. Mark was reminded of a time-lapse video where insects and bacteria devour the carcass of an animal until only skeletal remains are left. Yeah, if things ever got back to normal, he would be in some serious trouble.
There were a number of people around outside, but still, they had not entered the apartment complex. So, there was that. He carefully entered the code on the keypad, making sure that no one could see it, and opened the door.
Why are you doing this? Mark thought to himself. Even when you used to drink, you didn’t drink every day, all day. Mark was still greatly upset by Nannette’s death, but he began wondering if he really needed to do this to himself. He could probably sleep today without self-medicating. Maybe he should just rest, hang out with Eddie.
Or...maybe he could drink all day. What did he care about what happened to him? There was Eddie, the dog didn’t deserve to be left alone this much. There was also Oren. Mark had promised to go with him, but it just seemed so silly at times, to hang out by the side of the road all night. Still, if there was a chance that it was real, if there was a chance he could see Mattie, his lost kid, and Nannette. He decided he would call Oren when he got to his apartment. He wasn’t sure where his cell phone was, hopefully at home, but he could always use his landline for the call.
Mark took a deep breath, and smelled the odor emanating from his body. He decided that he would shower first. His bowels started rumbling, almost violently and he felt a pain in his abdominal area. Okay, maybe he would shower second.
As he walked through the courtyard, something seemed a bit off.