"Grassy Field Sunset" by Kevin Cardin.
© Please do not reproduce without artist's permission.
by Brandon Daily
He’s dreamed often of this place since he left town twenty years ago. He hears ghost sounds in those dreams—screams of laughter, shoes moving quickly over the earth, hard breaths gasping for more air, and familiar names shouted wild into the warm breeze. In those dreams, he feels the sun’s heat baking his skin tan to brown, dark now and warm; sweat drips from his brow and his neck, tickling his skin. When he wakes, he wipes his face with his pillow and looks around at the cramped, hollow room.
Years ago, he would roll over in bed, feel her skin warm against his own, smell in the breath from her hair. He would imagine her face in the darkness: the lines etched perfectly, strong and chiseled beneath the night.
Now, that image rests solely in memory. Now, when he wakes from the dreams, he sits at the edge of the bed and stares at the far wall of the room, conjuring images and ghosts within the blank spaces. Outside are beasts he dare not face, monstrous things with hairy backs and legs that stretch to the moon—monsters with eyes he can’t see, can only feel. He stays like this, waiting for the sun to light the outside world so he can get out of bed, dress, and forget everything.
He stands here again, feeling the soft ground beneath his feet. The field has changed so much in these past years that he doesn’t know if he is in the right place. He looks behind him, to his left and right. He’s alone; the only other things with him are a tree—its leaves already fallen defeated to the ground—and his Camry, which sits a distance off and shines brightly in the afternoon.
The field was once green, but it’s since turned a sickly yellow. Bottles and paper trash litter the weeds that grow from the dead soil. This can’t be, he thinks until he kneels and puts his hand on the land, scooping up a small amount of dirt and grass. I’ve known this land, he says aloud. To the world, to himself.
He stands quickly, then shakes his head to try and push away the rush of dizziness. A wind blows through him, swirling the litter of the field into a frenzy—a twister he watches in its creation and studies in its end. He opens his hand and watches as the cooling, autumn wind takes the dusty earth to some other place—the place it is meant for, perhaps. He watches as it disappears into the nearby high grass and weeds, and then he turns to walk out into the barren land. There’s nothing out there, save the memories of a time that, when awake, he has long since forgotten.
This morning, he woke from a calm, dreamless sleep.
It was still dark when he showered and brushed his teeth, the sun only beginning its rise when he made his way into the kitchen. The sounds of the busy street outside surrounded him as he sipped his coffee and ate his bagel—cream cheese spread heavily over the edges.
He paid no attention to the noise out there. When he first moved to the city with his parents, years ago now, he could not sleep because of the traffic; the rumbling of the earth from cars and life shook him in his dreams, and he cursed his family for moving him here. It was not until he met Mary that he became accustomed to the city.
The next thing he remembers from the morning is walking into his son’s room, bending down, holding his tie back so it did not fall into the sleeping child’s face. The boy was so peaceful and the man wondered if he, himself, had ever been that serene. He lightly kissed his son on the forehead and paused after he stood up, looking down at the gentle, sleeping thing. He smiled. Then he left the house, not bothering to go in and kiss Mary goodbye.
The car was hot from the sun, and he switched on the radio, flipping quickly through the channels that hummed of static. After a while, he gave up and cut the radio off and stared straight ahead, focusing on the traffic that lay before him, around him. It was always the same, every morning, and he wondered if things would ever change, if things could ever change. He doubted it and instead thought of the day ahead.
It was not until he looked down at his watch that he realized he’d been driving for six hours. His body grew tight and cold in that instant—he could feel the pricks of chill-bumps lining his arms and neck. He pulled over to the side of the road and stepped out into the cool afternoon air. Outside, his legs felt loose and relaxed, not tight and aching as they seemed to always feel. When he looked around the place, he felt a rare sense of peace about him; he recognized the run-down streets, the houses with paint scratched off in chunks, exposing the frame skeletons. Things had changed since he was seven; since then, the town had become weathered and desolate: a pale shadow of what he remembered.
He drove slowly, weaving his way through streets and eventually making his way to his old neighborhood, and then to his parent’s house. He found nothing there but an empty lot, some garbage piled in clusters. The streets were strewn with cracks, tiny fault lines that spread out like spiders’ webs in the asphalt. Be careful you don’t get caught in the web. Don’t fall through the earth—where would you end up?
His grade school was surrounded by a chain-link fence now. Paper and other blowing debris, plastic grocery bags and shredded rags of cloth, had become stuck in the fence links and created there a map of lost things. He stopped his car briefly and looked for schoolchildren within the fenced area. The playground stood soundlessly in the distance, a mute being. The swings were broken and they dragged along the ground. The sand was molded in strange, wet clumps, and the metal slide was rusted and chipped with time and age and pain.
He walks slowly to the center of the field. From here, the car behind him looks like a tiny insect, something to be stepped over, thrown away. Forgotten. The wind picks up again, heavy like a blanket, just as it had years ago when he came here with his friends. They would throw a football back and forth, kick soccer balls, fling frisbees at each other, and stray dogs would run after the disks in play.
Off in the distance, he thinks he hears something, laughter maybe, though maybe it’s just the familiar wind calling through the single tree of the field, or a lonely bird on that tree calling for company. Without knowing why, he loosens the tie from around his neck and tosses it high into the air, watching as the wind carries the tie away like a mischievous child, hiding it for all time. Next, he unbuttons his shirt and lets it drop to the ground, covering the yellow weeds of the field. He walks further into the yellow—the yellow surrounds him like either mustard gas or sunflowers, he still doesn’t know which. He is clothed only in his dress pants and undershirt, and the wind plays over his bare arms like a cool stream.
He can see the past now. The yellow field is green and full of life, as it once was. The small children of his youth have returned, and he is seven years old again. He begins running as fast as he can out into the field; he’s chasing Mark and Sandy Milner—he sees them a few steps in front of him. They were his best friends when he was six. Years later, he heard that Mark died in a car crash—he’d been in high school then—but now, as he chases the boys through the field, that crash has not yet happened; instead, they are simply kids again, smiling and laughing and running and living their lives. He looks to his right and sees Joel throwing a baseball to Tommy. Past them are Davey and Jenna, secretly holding hands. Maybe one day they’ll marry each other and live happily, or not; that is a worry for another time.
He stops running and watches these ghosts before him. Looking down, he sees that his hands are small and pudgy, full of extra skin and fat. Someday his body will become thin and strong, he will have a wife and baby, he will work everyday at a law firm in the city. He will one day look in a mirror and see gray in his hair and will secretly dye it dark. But none of that is important now—not when you’re seven years old and your whole life is before you. He watches these ghosts, wondering if his eyes are open or closed. It doesn’t matter, he thinks.
He wipes his eyes with his adult hands and then looks back at the field. The children are all gone and he is left alone again in yellow weeds.
He sits softly on the earth and then lays back, letting the prickly field envelop him, the dry earth pillow his body. Pollen floats freely about his head and is carried off into the world with each breath he exhales. If I lie here long enough, will I become part of the field? He wonders if he will ever be able to leave it.
Turning his head to the west, he sees that the sun is sinking low over the distant mountains.
It was dark.
The alarm clock on the dresser showed just after three o’clock and the baby was crying in the other room. Even though it had been two weeks since they’d come home from the hospital—Mary cradling the baby to her chest, as if she could never let him go—the man had not grown used to the new routine of life.
When he rolled over to touch Mary, he felt only the cool of the sheets where her body had once been. Wind blew restless against the window and he listened for several seconds as the glass rattled within its holding. The baby had stopped crying, though the man had not noticed that.
He made his way slowly down the hall toward the nursery, where a dull faint glow escaped from beneath the closed door. On the other side came a soft humming noise, and the man waited outside with his ear pressed lightly against the wood so that he could more clearly hear the humming within the breath of the house.
After a minute or two, he opened the door quietly and looked inside. There, sitting in the rocking chair he’d made for her several months earlier, was Mary. She held the baby tightly to her chest. She was humming a nameless tune, and he watched as the baby rose and fell gently with each breath Mary took. When she looked up at him, noticing that she was no longer alone with the baby, she did not smile. There was a wet shimmer to her cheeks, and a heaviness to her eyes. A second or two passed, with Mary looking at him, before she looked back to the baby and continued her slow melody.
He watched for several seconds more, feeling an emptiness grow inside of his gut, before he began to close the door.
The sound of his phone wakes him. He does not know how long he has been asleep, but it cannot have been long: the sun is still up, though barely. It now looks to be merely a sliver of light along the dark line of the horizon.
He sits up and pulls the phone from his pocket. The screen reads “Home.” He looks down at the phone, not moving, waiting until it goes silent. When it does, he sits still for several seconds, looking out at the field. In the darkness of the evening, he can only just make out the hint of yellow weeds, from a world fading from sight. Maybe in the morning it will be green and full of life, just as he remembers it—maybe it is like that already, just beyond his reach. He looks down at the phone again—it is still silent, but the name on it remains.
He wonders what that really means.
Brandon Daily lives in Georgia with his wife Amanda and their newborn boy Sawyer. His first novel "A Murder Country" (Knox Robinson Publishing) was released in September, 2014. Brandon's short story and plays have been published both in print and online. His play “South of Salvation” won the 2012 National One-Act Playwriting Competition hosted by CAST Players in Beaumont, California, where it was also produced and performed.