The Last Thing We Ever Do
By Israfel Sivad
“Byron, are you smoking too?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah,” Byron answered. He nodded even though she couldn’t see him, and he moved the phone a bit so he could flick his cigarette in the ashtray.
“That’s nice,” she said. For a moment, she sounded like herself again. “Maybe I can just close my eyes and pretend like we’re smoking together here.”
Byron smiled sadly. He set his cigarettes and his lighter beside himself on the bed, and he leaned back to rest his head against the wall.
Sarah started talking again, “Do you remember when you used to call me every night so we could watch TV together?”
Byron smiled. His throat was dry. His mouth was hollow, but he managed to say, “Yeah.”
“Well, this is just like that,” she said.
“Yeah,” he laughed sadly, “Just like that.”
Sarah whispered, “I’m glad you’re my friend.” He could picture her puffy eyes and her stained cheeks lifting into a timid smile. He didn’t answer her.
Sitting there, listening to one another inhale and exhale smoke, they were silent for a little while.
Sarah said, “Byron, what do you think it feels like to die?”
A weird mix of sadness and anger contorted Byron’s face. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know.”
“Do you think it feels better than being alive?”
His bed creaked as he sat up on it. He pulled his hands down his cheeks, but he left his fingertips on his chin. “Yeah, it probably does.”
“I think so too.”
From the background, a woman’s muffled voice yelled Sarah’s name. “My mom’s home. I’m not supposed to be on the phone,” she sniffled.
“Are you gonna tell her?” he asked.
“Hell no,” she almost laughed. “The common bastard will deny it anyway.” Then, Sarah whispered his name again, and her voice got even softer, “You’re my best friend.”
Byron didn’t answer.
Getting closer, the woman yelled again. He pictured Sarah cup her hand around her mouth. “I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you too,” Byron said. The other end of the phone clicked. The line went dead. Byron hung up.
Sitting still on his bed, he lit another cigarette. His room was the bowl of an ashtray. The smoke lay thick and heavy with nowhere to escape. It swirled and congealed in a heavy cloud near the ceiling. Byron stood up and stepped over the jeans and black tee shirts on his floor to open the window next to the messy dresser across from his bed. He took a deep breath of the humid air bursting in on him. Even in the night, the heat was almost unbearable, but it was preferable to the choking smoke.
The air conditioner hanging on the window next to the open one rumbled sharply beneath the light shining on it. Liquid ran down its side and dripped into a muddy puddle beneath it. The air conditioner smelled of mildew. It blew the stench into his house, and Byron hated it. He hated the way his house and his clothes and his hair stank from that machine that was supposed to make him pleasant.
He stood, leaning against the window frame, staring at the black woods beyond the shadows of pick-ups jacked up in the backyard. Sarah’s house was on the other side of all that. He stretched his spine. The vertebrae cracked, and he loosely twisted his stiff neck. In the driveway to the left, the sharp outline of the rig of his dad’s truck was waiting for the next job. The dark shapes of its stacks were the horns of a great beast. Its gaping grill formed the long teeth of a wired mouth. Byron pursed his lips and shook his head. “Get back on the road, old man,” he whispered. He angrily flicked his cigarette into the darkness. It spun a scattering of sparks, and it dove into the ground to burn away on the grass.
Byron turned around. He ran his hands through his hair. Grabbing hold of the long, black strands, he pulled at his scalp. He wanted to scream something, but the rumble of the air conditioner and the distant crickets wouldn’t be enough to bury his voice, and he knew that if he shouted anything, his dad would come in with a belt whipping through the sticky air.
A large, oval mirror was set on top of his battered dresser. In its finger printed glass, Byron’s reflection was a little distorted, even longer and sharper than he actually was. His bare chest and arms were lankier than his sinewy body should have been. His pointed features seemed to stick out even more than usual from his dark, sunken eyes, but it was still him, with his scarred body and his long hair.
Running his hands down his legs, he leaned toward his reflection. Blowing the hair off his forehead, he set his hands on the edge of the dresser. He stared into his black eyes. “What am I supposed to do, huh?” he whispered. “Why you tell me about that?” He slammed his hand against the hard wood of his dresser.
With a thud, it rocked back into the wall. Byron glanced over his shoulder to wait with tense breath to see whether or not his dad would come thundering into his room, but his door stayed closed. He exhaled and turned back to his eyes. As he started speaking again, he lost himself in their darkness. He spat at the mirror as if it were someone else, “How you think you can do that? What’s your problem, man?” He stepped back and straightened up. The long muscles beneath the scars on his chest flexed and relaxed, “I’ll kill you, man. You know that? I’ll fuckin’ kill you.” His eyes grew wide. His head went numb, “If I ever find you, I’m gonna slit your goddamn throat.” Crossing his arms and leaning toward the mirror, he ended by launching a wad of phlegm onto his reflection. The white mucus stuck then streaked down the glass. Byron turned around.
His room stank of stale sweat and smoke and fetid air. The air was too hot, too humid. The air conditioner was too loud and too monotonous. The night was too long. Byron walked over to a little, black boombox on the floor next to his bed. Cracking his knees, he crouched down to dig through a pile of tapes next to it. Picking each one up and flinging it aside with a plastic crash, scattering them across the carpet, he finally found the one he wanted to listen to. He stuck it in the boombox, pressed rewind, listened to it whir and stick, and then he stepped away and let it play.
The droning guitar filled his bedroom’s sticky heat. Byron lit another cigarette that he didn’t want. A deep voice swirled around him, thickly drawling about how he could feel it move him, feel it shove him, that it cut the numbness, and he came alive.
Walking tiny circles around his room, running his hands through his hair, Byron closed his eyes. Above the music’s chant, the air conditioner still rattled his window. Byron’s eyes snapped open. An old baseball trophy was on his dresser, a little figurine in a cap with a bat above his shoulder: Little League 1986. He hadn’t won it for doing anything special, just for playing, and its dull color and diminutive size proved that. He snatched it off the dresser. He curled his arm back and flung the trophy out the window at the metal box. Weighted by its base, the trophy spun awkwardly through the air. A loud clank sounded as it struck the air conditioner. Leaving a dent, the batter’s head snapped off, and the trophy thudded into the muddy earth. The rumble skipped a beat, knocked a bit, then grumbled even deeper than it had before.
Byron stood still, staring blankly and panting a little from the outburst. With a click and a whoosh and a slam as it hit the wall, his door flew open. Startled, he spun around.
His dad stepped into the room. “What the hell was that noise?”
Byron stayed still.
Beneath his small forehead, his dad’s thick eyebrows were bunched up. His huge shoulders were hunched over his beer fed frame. His legs were sticks poking out of his shorts. As he swayed forward a little bit from the liquor, his legs looked like they might snap beneath the body they were supporting. “I asked you a question.”
“Somethin’ fell outside,” Byron answered.
His dad’s bloodshot eyes shot toward the window. He knit his eyebrows closer together. He looked back at Byron. He darted his fat tongue out to lick his penciled lips. “Whad you break, boy?”
“Nothin’. I told you it was outside.”
His dad stepped forward and searched the room for signs of violence. He stared at the streaked mirror. Curling his lips, he said, “Don’t lie to me, boy. I tell your P.O., and you ain’t gonna have to worry ‘bout this house arrest. You be locked up again.”
“It was nothin’. Somethin’ fell outside.”
His dad wobbled there for a little while. He narrowed his eyes. He cocked his head to the side. “Turn that damn noise down,” he said. “People are tryin’ to sleep.”
His dad turned around and slammed the door behind himself.
Byron turned the radio down. The air conditioner’s racket drowned it out almost completely. Pulling at his hair and staring at the floor, Byron walked back to the mirror.
His face was pale. His heart was thumping. His breath was shaking. His palms were sweating like he was sick. Rubbing his greasy hands together, he stared in the mirror at the scars across his chest.
He traced his fingertips down their thick lines. Then, he frowned and moved one step closer to the dresser.
Opening the top drawer and pushing his underwear aside, he pulled out a piece of black metal about the length of his hand.
The metal was warm and sticky, thick and moist with either the air’s or his hand’s condensation. Byron pushed up on a little, silver button near the top. With a snap, a metal blade flew out the side to stick and lock when it came straight with the handle.
Lightly holding the switchblade in his right hand, Byron rubbed his thumb across the blade. The grooves in his skin caught on the sharpened metal. He blew his hair off his forehead. Cocking his head to the side, he tightened his fingers around the grip. He curled his arm to bring the blade up to touch the point against his shoulder.
He turned back to the mirror and stared at himself for a moment. The streak of mucus down his reflection looked like a tear, and he scowled. He looked back at his arm, inhaled deeply, held his breath, grit his teeth, and popped the point into his skin.
He had to close his eyes. A tiny rip followed the knife point. Easily cutting through his flesh, the metal slid smoothly down his arm. Byron winced. His eyes teared. A small whine escaped his lips. When he glanced at the mirror, a ridge of flesh around his newly made wound puffed up pink. A trickle of deep red splotches dotted the two inch long, vertical incision.
But Byron didn’t look for long. He moved the knife’s point. He twisted the angle of his hand. Closing his eyes and holding his breath again, he pushed the knife into his skin just a little bit to the side of the first slice that was piling blood in its groove. He grunted as he pulled the blade horizontally through his arm. Its point stuck in the first incision, and he cried out softly. “Bleed,” he whispered, flexing his forearm to rip the metal through the drips of blood to continue slicing his shoulder. Byron pulled the blade out of himself. With his head alive from the pain, he opened his eyes.
The little dots of blood from the first slice had pooled and overflowed. A lake of sticky red was running down his bicep. The second slice was still fresh and pink and beginning to drip just a little bit. Byron twisted his torso to get a better look at his work. He could almost see what he had carved. Then, the horizontal incision filled and spilled another ocean.
The blood ran down his forearm and onto his hand. It dripped through the air and spilled to stain the carpet. Byron quickly dropped the knife back in the drawer. He pulled out a pair of underwear. He rubbed the cotton up his arm. Red streaks smeared across his skin, but for a moment, when he slapped the sopping fabric around his incisions, he saw the reflection of the inverted cross that he had carved into himself. But the wound quickly filled and overflowed again.
The first pair of underpants became saturated, and Byron dropped them. He grabbed another pair, but the blood flowed faster than he could clean, and he had to toss the soaked cotton aside and grab another pair. His face paled. He picked a dirty sock up off the ground. He used his hand and his teeth to tie it tight around his shoulder to try and stem the flow.
When the blood finally stopped running, Byron calmly used his last pair of underpants to wipe up what was left. His head felt light. His shoulder throbbed. The stiff sock scratched his skin. His arm felt sticky. The deep fluid had stained his flesh. Stepping backwards, he landed on his bed.
Lighting another cigarette, he leaned back and exhaled vigorously. He strained to hear the music hidden beneath the air conditioner’s noise. He thought about calling Sarah back, but he knew that if her mom hadn’t passed out yet, then all he’d do was get her in trouble. “If she can talk, she’ll call me,” he whispered.
He lay still for a little while, just smoking and staring at the ceiling and feeling his mind empty out. Glancing toward the dresser, he frowned at the missing trophy. His gaze grew bleary and indistinct when he stared at the bloodstain on his carpet and the soaked underpants scattered across his floor. He twisted his neck to check the sock. Smeared red, his arm was trembling. No more blood was flowing down his limb, but the sock was beginning to get a little soggy. He thought that maybe he should go to the bathroom to try washing himself off and finding a real dressing for his wound.
He left the stereo on. Quietly opening and closing his door, he stepped into the hallway. In the long, narrow corridor, the air conditioner was only a distant knocking. Byron glanced to his right. A TV’s blue tint lit the darkness at that end. The murmur of speakered voices added a touch of life to the otherwise dismal house. He heard the heavy creak of his dad’s chair and the distant tinkle of ice cubes knocking against glass. Byron turned in the other direction to head toward the bathroom.
“Byron?” a timid voice asked. He turned back around.
His little brother was standing there, wearing the pajamas that he always seemed to wear. His hair was a mess from tossing around in his sleep. Byron didn’t say anything. The little boy shuffled a little bit closer. “Byron, are you okay?”
The child’s eyes were wide and terrified. Dropping down almost to his level, Byron leaned closer to his brother. The older brother blew his hair off his forehead. He whispered, “Go back to bed, Michael. You shouldn’t be up right now.”
“I heard a noise earlier. It woke me up.”
“Everything’s okay,” Byron whispered. “Go back to bed before dad sees you’re still up.”
The little boy pulled nervously at his ear. “I had a bad dream.”
Byron nodded. He straightened back up. “Just go back to bed.”
Michael’s mouth dropped open. Terrified, he whispered, “What happened to your arm?”
Byron shrugged, “Don’t worry about it.” He turned around to try and make it to the bathroom before his dad heard them whispering.
But before he had even taken a step, he heard the heavy swing of his dad’s chair and the thud of the man’s feet. Byron dropped his head. Then, the shout came, “Michael! Get your ass back in that room, boy! What the hell you still doin’ up?”
The pitter-patter of Michael running along the carpet led to the click and slam of the little boy’s bedroom door. Byron turned around just in time to see his brother reaching up to fumblingly grab the handle and pull it back toward his scared face.
His dad flicked the hall light on. Blinded, Byron squinted at its yellow brilliance. “I told you people were tryin’ to sleep, boy,” his dad slurred and stumbled forward, bracing himself against the hallway.
Careful to keep his shoulder out of the old man’s sight, Byron tried heading off to the bathroom. “Goddamnit! Look at me when I’m…” His dad stopped talking as Byron turned back to face him. The man’s gaze steamed. His eyebrows fumed. “What the hell you do to yourself?”
Byron glanced at his shoulder. Turning back to his dad, he slowly answered, “I caught my arm on a nail.”
His dad thudded toward him. At sixteen, Byron was about an inch taller than him, but the man’s shoulders seemed almost as broad as the hall. His chest was as solid as the grill of his truck. Byron wondered for a moment if his own long build would ever puff out like his father’s. A spasm of disgust passed over his face.
“That’s bull shit, boy.” He reached out and yanked on Byron’s arm. Pain shot from Byron’s shoulder to his brain. He winced, but his dad didn’t notice. He swayed a little bit, taking in the dark shadow of stained skin, staring at the sock growing dark and moist. Flinging his son’s arm away from himself, he shouted, “Jesus Christ! What the hell is wrong with you?”
Byron gently rubbed his throbbing shoulder. He shrugged and turned around.
“Where you think you’re goin’?”
“To clean myself up.”
“It don’t matter how clean you get yourself. You be back in that detention center ‘fore you can spit.”
Hiding his eyes behind his hair, Byron glared over his shoulder, but his dad had already turned to head back to the TV’s glow.
Shaking his head, Byron walked to the bathroom. Beneath the quivering light, the walls’ peeling paint and the sink’s dirty basin seemed like post apocalyptic remnants of some ancient, once habitable society. The exposed pipes knocked as Byron turned the grimy faucet.
He ran the water into his cupped hands, leaned down, and splashed it across his face. A few strands of hair stuck to his forehead. The drips glistened on his pale skin. His lips quivered in time to the seemingly dying light. The sock around his shoulder was scratching him less and less as it grew damper.
Byron splashed some more water onto his forearm. As he massaged it across his skin, it dripped back into the sink, pink. He turned off the faucet. Feeling a little light-headed, he leaned against the wall opposite the sink and the mirror.
Dotted by months of stray spray, the mirror reflected a pointillist portrait of him. Exhaling, Byron glanced up and blew the hair off his eyes. The movement of air agitated the house’s stench. Byron clenched his fist. In a tight, barely forceful arc, he swung it back into the wall. “Oh God, I hate this shit,” he whispered.
Leaning over to his left, he turned the faucet on in the bathtub. A thick downpour of water splashed against the porcelain. Byron slipped out of his tight jeans. He leaned over to check the tub’s temperature. Drawing the stained shower curtain, he flipped the little switch between the knobs on the faucet. Sputtering, the shower started up. Byron stepped out of his underwear, kicked it to the side, and stepped into the shower.
The tub’s floor was slick and slimy. The water didn’t drain quite right. It pooled in an almost gray puddle streaked with strands of long hair. Curling his lips back and closing his eyes, Byron touched his toes against the puddle so that he could step beneath the spray. Slick and hot, the water drenched his makeshift bandage. It pounded the smeared blood off Byron’s arm to leave a light pool of pink that ran to the drain and swirled in with the grayness and the hair. In the middle of the shower’s torrent, running his hands through his hair, slicking its strands onto his back and neck, without moving his lips, Byron whispered, so softly that even if anybody had been there they wouldn’t have heard, “Why can’t it just end?”
There was a crash and a thud and a curse. Byron’s eyes popped open. He jumped just a little bit. The soap slipped out of his hands, but before he could lean down to pick it up, the rattling rings on the shower curtain slid across the rusted rod. With a whoosh, the curtain billowed back. Byron caught a glimpse of his father before a whir sliced through the air to end in a wet smack that stung his ribs.
Byron whimpered slightly. He slipped and stumbled backward into the tiles, but before he fell, the belt flew through the air again to lash his shoulder and leave a long, red welt. “What is your problem, boy!” his dad shouted, and the belt struck him again.
Byron banged his elbow against the tub. He breathed a pathetic sound. His feet splashed in the puddle as he tried regaining his breath and sense. Scurrying in every direction, he scrambled into the tub’s corner, balling his legs up to his chest, instinctively trying to protect himself as his stunned mind tried to understand what was going on.
Trying to get closer to his son, his dad put one foot in the tub. The steaming water drenched his shorts and his thin, hairy legs. The belt came at Byron again. He brought his hands up to protect his face. The leather smacked his palms. It whirred around his head to slap his ear. For a moment, Byron couldn’t hear anything on his right side, but his left ear still heard what his dad was saying. Each word was punctuated by the motion of the belt. Each slap of the belt ended in Byron’s gasps. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Why’s there blood all over your goddamn room?” Byron tried dodging and blocking the belt. His mind was coming back to him. As he grew used to them, the stings from the whips weren’t hurting quite so bad. He narrowed his eyes. He clenched his teeth. He stopped recoiling into the corner. He just listened to the belt smack his skin.
“And tell your little whore people are tryin’ to sleep here!” With his features on fire, Byron turned his head up to stare blankly at his old man. His dad brought the belt back again. It whirred through the air above his head, but when his arm came straight, the belt stopped for a moment. It wrapped and slapped around the curtain rod. His dad looked up, grunted, and pulled. The rod came loose from the wall. Tangling around the man’s pudgy hands, the curtain crashed into the tub.
With both hands in front of himself, Byron jumped up. He used the extra force from his spring to ram his palms into his dad’s chest. Stumbling backward, his dad knocked his heel against the tub. Beneath the falling, billowing shower curtain, the top-heavy man crashed to the floor. He braced himself with his arms and drunkenly mumbled something. Then, his hands twisted out from underneath him. His head slammed into the tiles.
Byron slipped a little, but he quickly steadied himself. The water was pounding across his naked frame. His pulse was racing, and his arm was trembling. He looked down at his dad. The man’s eyes were closed. He was moving his jaw in heavy, drunken breaths. He was slowly rolling his head as if his numbed mind were having a bad dream and it was trying to figure out what was happening. But Byron didn’t wait. He leaped out of the tub and skidded across the tiles to the door.
Michael was standing still in the hallway, still in his pajamas, still with his hair a mess. His lips were trembling. His eyes were puffy, and he was sniffling. He blubbered something when his brother came out of the bathroom, but Byron wasn’t listening. “Get outta here,” he whispered, stumbling past him.
The door to his bedroom was open. Off the hook and beeping, the phone was lying on his bed. The stereo was still droning beneath the air conditioner’s rattle. The voice was breathing, palpitating: “Carve a hole in your distorted world. I’m here to bang it!” And then with a crunch, the music rushed in again.
Still naked, staring at the bloody underwear, Byron walked a few small circles. His entire body was shaking. His breath was jagged. He ran his hand through his sopping hair. “Sarah,” he whispered, and he quickly reached down to wriggle his wet legs into a skin-tight pair of faded, ripped up jeans. The denim clung to the moisture. It scratched his skin.
Hurriedly sitting down on the floor, he slipped on a pair of black high tops. Standing back up, he squashed his soaking feet into the soles. He grabbed a black tee shirt and ran over to the dresser.
From the mirror, he caught a glimpse of his reflection. His face was as white as a sun-bleached skull. Water drained like a deluge from his long hair. The sock around his arm was soaked a deep red color. Raised welts were slashed across his wet, dripping neck, arms, shoulders, and chest. One stripe even skidded around the right side of his face. Byron twisted his lips. Screaming, he reached out, grabbed the mirror, and toppled it onto the floor where the glass crashed and splintered into myriad little slivers.
He slipped the shirt over his scarred torso. The sleeve puffed out around the sock on his shoulder. Reaching into the top drawer, he grabbed the switchblade, closed and locked it, and fumblingly shoved it into his back pocket.
He slipped his hands through his hair to slick it back out of his eyes, and he walked over to the window. The air conditioner stank and grumbled at him. Byron flung the glass up hard enough to make it rattle in its frame. He threw one leg over the sill. The distant sound of his father grumbling reached his ear. Byron ducked out into the night.
He landed in mud, on the base of the trophy. He stumbled a little bit, and his ankle twisted. A few of the mildewed drops from the air conditioner landed on him, but soon he was running, limping as if he had a clubfoot, past the jacked-up pick up trucks. His dad’s rig glared at his back, but it couldn’t catch him now. Byron breathed heavily and pumped his arms as he headed toward the woods. Sarah lived on the other side.
Taken from Israfel Sivad’s collection of short stories Welcome to the Modern World, Charlie available here.