by Dan Schryer
Pillars of sloped light blinked across the bedroom ceiling. Matthew rubbed the sleep from his eyes, spitting a hushed curse across the room as he sat up. He was weak, his limbs heavy, pinned under the sheets by some languid magnetism. The light pouring in from the windows began to dull, softening the pillars into the ceiling’s off-white surface. Outside, the wind hissed between the trees. He stepped away from the bed.
Shuffling into the kitchen, he opened the cabinet and counted his remaining inventory: two protein bars, a bag of rice, half a box of cereal (no milk, obviously), and a can of pinto beans. His eyes lingered on the empty spaces between the food; Davey had taken most of their supply, for all the good it did him. No more condensed vegetables, no more dried fruit, no more of that apple cinnamon oatmeal he’d been saving. Even the coffee grounds were gone. What a bastard, Matthew thought. What a hungry bastard.
Flat strands of swaying grass brushed against the kitchen window. Muted sunlight strobed between the blades, throwing long, shifting shadows across the floor. Matthew traced a trembling finger across the gray skies, drawing an arc up to the cloud-muddled sun. Must be afternoon already. Three, maybe three thirty? I’d be at work right now, counting the minutes until could I hole myself up back here. Jesus.
He dipped a plastic cup into the sink, watching the stagnant water seep in. This sink was the last reservoir of potable water in the house; the bathroom sink had been dry for at least a month and they’d neglected to fill and plug the bathtub, a sore conversation topic during the first few weeks of isolation. He started to reach for the missing coffee grounds, then stopped himself. Old habits.
He sipped from the cup, peering between the wafting blades.
Bristling plumes of grass stabbed into the air, four feet tall in some places and shifting idly in the wind. Across the street, the Peterson’s house peeked out from above the growth. Now it was a prism of fibrous vines, every manmade surface strangled by sinewy green ropes. No windows, no doors, no hard edges. Just a maze of knotted roots.
Matthew set down the cup and ran a hand through his overgrown hair. Last week (or at least it felt like last week) he was able to see through the Peterson’s cavernous front window. That was a few days after he was able to see the wheels of his olive-green Corolla poking above the grass. Now he was lucky to catch a glimpse the rust-chapped chassis through the swaying blades. A streetlight leaned awkwardly in the distance, its rust-covered pole wilting like a bent sunflower.
He raised his spindly arms towards the ceiling, listening to the blood rush past his ears as he stretched.
At the beginning of it all, he’d started running laps through the house, savoring every bead of hard-fought sweat as he raged against his own inactivity. He’d given up on real exercise after Davey stepped out the front door. Exercising was Davey’s idea; it just felt wrong to go through the regimen without his winded shouts of encouragement.
He sighed at the memory, lingering on the half-remembered exhaustion as he turned towards the front door.
Afternoon sun bled in through the windows, radiating weakly into the house’s darkened corners. Dust danced in swirling ribbons across beams of spectral light. An inert television stared dumbly into the unoccupied couch. The place looked like a house in stasis. The sight wasn’t new to him, of course, but the stillness of it all still gave him pause. Silence rang in his ears, his heartbeat keeping the time. His lingering presence felt like an intrusion.
Gripping the front door’s knob, Matthew closed his eyes and gathered his breath. Light spilled into the entryway with a whining creak.
His pupils flexed against the sudden burst of light, calibrating themselves to the front yard’s shifting landscape. The sidewalk’s concrete snaked away from the house, disappearing into swaying stalks of overgrown grass. The blades oscillated, their ends stabbing over a yard into the air. The wind picked up, filling the dense foliage with new breath.
Matthew caught a glimpse of weathered white Nikes between the tangle of grass, their soles pointed back towards the house. Davey was still face down on the coarse strip of sidewalk, a torn red backpack anchoring him in place. The grass caressed Davey’s rapidly aged jeans, brushing across jagged tears in the denim. The wind exhaled as the grass shifted, disappearing Davey back into the vegetation. Matthew stared out, watching the green waves roll over his friend.
He closed his eyes and drank in the muffled sunlight, feeling a gentle veil of warmth settle onto his face. His shoulders dropped, relaxed.
Matthew threw himself back in time, before the grass could hide the sidewalk like a bad combover, before the metallic taste of sink-marinated drinking water, when it was a given that he could walk wherever he damn well pleased. He thought back with hollow-stomached nostalgia on how the hours used to creep invisibly forward, unremarkable in their passing. Things were different now, though.
The warmth left his face as the sun sank behind the Peterson’s house. Six o’clock already? He jammed his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants as his fingers brushed against something small and metallic. He withdrew a quarter, turning it over in his hands, catching its gleam in the retreating light.
He blinked at George Washington’s humorless profile, his carved gaze pointing into the yard. When did I pick this up? Yesterday? Last week?
He flicked the coin out towards Davey, watching it flip and spin above the sidewalk. The coin reached its apex just as dirt-colored rust began to radiate across its surface. It hit the concrete with a deadened plink, rolling to a stop at the sidewalk’s edge. The quarter was bubbled with rust, warped and weathered like some long-forgotten artifact. Matthew let out a cynical chuckle. Guess I’m broke.
Standing so close to the threshold for this long made Matthew uneasy; the wind licked at his clothes, tugging the loose fabric out towards the street. There had been an argument before Davey stepped out, animated and not without collateral damage. As far as either of them could tell, they were safe inside the house; the windows held firm and the walls refused to buckle. Step outside, however, and all bets were off.
The danger was difficult to predict. Davey had once scooped up a handful of paper scraps from the recycling and threw them in a loose ball out of the kitchen window; a few scraps crumbled to dust before they hit the ground, but others caught the wind and were whisked out of sight. Matthew took this as an ill omen. Davey read it as a glimmer of hope. Voices were raised, words were exchanged.
Matthew could remember it clearly; Davey opening the door in a desperate huff, a backpack full of pilfered food slung across his back. He was breathing hard, building up the strength to make a run for the car, waiting for some inscrutable signal to push him out. Matthew hid behind the couch, pleading with him to close the door, to come back, to stay safe. Davey let loose a guttural howl and charged out towards the street. He made it one step out, two steps, three. The backpack’s bottom ripped, spilling packets of oatmeal and loose coffee grounds as Davey ran. His howl wavered into a moan, the scream’s ferocity disappearing as he rushed ahead. His unkept hair sprang with each plodding stride, its golden strands curdling into a silvery gray. He slowed, his gait suddenly unsteady. Matthew heard a dry snap and watched Davey’s legs buckle halfway down the sidewalk. His face, now brittle and creased with sudden wrinkles, slammed sharply into the concrete. Matthew watched for movement, wide-eyed, waiting for Davey to stir. The grass, only a foot tall at this point, bobbed from side to side around Davey, his red backpack jutting between the lawn’s churning waves. Davey looked like a tired scuba diver resting on the ocean floor, surrounded by tufts of seaweed wafting in the water’s syrupy breeze.
Matthew sipped at the cooled air, gritting his teeth. He was starting to forget Davey’s face.
He opened his eyes. The street was blanketed in heavy darkness. There were no more functioning streetlights to dilute the inky black as night flattened the yard, obscuring its depths as the wind swept through the stalks. Matthew sighed.
Some days the morning stretched to impossible lengths as the blaring sun rooted itself stubbornly in the sky. On these days, when time dropped to its knees and crawled with sickening sluggishness, Matthew could feel himself blending into the wallpaper, his muscles softening and his thoughts blunted.
Other times, though, the days passed in minutes, the sunlight growing and shrinking through the uncovered windows as the world strobed from dawn to dusk. On these days, time shot to its feet and flew through the air, jaunting its way through the week at a furious tempo. Matthew felt like the ground was shifting underneath him on these days, his thoughts struggling to plant themselves the frayed nerves webbing his brain.
As far as Matthew could tell, time kept its steady cadence within the house itself; his fingernails grew, milk went bad, dust gathered. He did his best to keep time, the real time, but eventually the batteries in the clocks would die and he’d be unmoored from its comforting passage.
He stepped backwards into the house, watching the sky turn overhead. Stars blinked into view, then snuffed themselves out just as quickly. He sighed as he shut the door, resting his forehead against the painted wood.
He was tired. More than that, he was depleted. His face was sallow, his eyes framed with pallid fatigue. Clothes, once snug, hung off him in a loose membrane of swaying fabric. He was a ghost flitting through his own house, slipping further and further away from himself as the sun skipped callously across the sky.
He imagined rushing through the grass, leaping over the red backpack as the leafy sea parted in front of him. It was a small comfort to have the car so close, to let his mind wander up to the driver side door when pangs of desperation ricocheted through his thoughts. But how many bodies were sleeping under the grass? How many houses on this block were being repossessed by nature, like the Peterson’s? The world was changing, hardening into something beyond his understanding.
Outside, the grass waved in ruinous splendor, rippling against the tranquil wind.
You can connect with Dan by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.