Here’s a free story.

I’ve wondered for some time how people get parts of a long post to appear “below the fold,” and finally got around to researching the code. So partly I’m posting this just so I can play with it.

A couple of years ago I started on a series of short stories, mostly having to do with a half-mad desert hermit named Shadow. I ran out of ideas and interest before it developed into anything like an anthology, and they’ve just been cluttering up my hard drive since then. Here’s one of the better ones.

Note: This story is not for children. It’s got bad language, violence, and a rather gruesome funeral.

It’s called “Shadow and the Hermit’s Funeral.”

Shadow was doing his laundry in the sink of what would have been his shack’s kitchen if the shack had had anything as specialized as a kitchen.

To do a thorough job of the laundry, Shadow had to wash it all at once. That wasn’t hard since he only owned two pairs of decent pants anyway. There were four or five ragged T-shirts, maybe five underpants, and a few unmatched pairs of socks. Laundry was painful since Shadow hated spending water on anything besides drinking or cooking, so he generally put it off until there was just nothing even a little clean to wear. The water he had first reluctantly poured into his sink was now a deep even brown, the exact shade of the sand and clay he lived with every day. He kept shoving his fist into the mass of cloth and brown water again and again, sometimes grabbing a handful of cloth and turning the whole thing over. He’d keep this up until he could stand the thought of spending another sinkful of precious water for rinsing; then he’d pull the plug and watch the filthy water, which he would have to work so hard to replace, drain out into his rock garden. Then he’d wring out the clothes and upend another bottle of water – so much better spent on drinking! – into the sink and give his clothes a rinse. God, there had to be a better way.

But there wasn’t one. Townies would just throw it all in the car and drive to a laundromat, spend quarters to let machines do it for them. Some might even have the machines right in their own houses – Shadow had a vague memory of a house like that, but he didn’t like to think about it. It was a helluva lot easier to be happy if you didn’t think about things like washing machines.

And other incredible luxuries like townie showers. Oh, just the thought! All the hot water you wanted, pouring down out of a bunch of little holes in a pipe, just pouring out all over your body, with shampoo that smelled like rain and soap that smelled like…well, soap. Luxury! Shadow shook his head. It was better not to think about it, or he’d find himself spending all day walking twelve miles or so and hoping one of his few townie friends was home. Then he’d just have to walk back, and it would be night, and he’d smell worse than ever at the end of it. Screw it. Water was for drinking – except for laundry sometimes. If he got to stinking so bad he couldn’t stand himself there was always nice clean sand to scrub with.

He went back to shoving his fist into the cloth in his sink. Just about time to pull the plug, dammit.

Just then his eyes snapped up. He heard something, or maybe he smelled something, coming close to the shack. He dropped what he was doing and headed for the door.

“Shadow! Hey, Shadow! You there?” It sounded like Denny…what was his name? Shadow could never remember the guy’s last name though he’d known him off and on for years. Denny usually just hunted and slept. He was the biggest poacher Shadow knew – the fish and game cops just hated him. Sometimes they’d run into each other in the boonies, but Shadow didn’t remember Denny ever coming to his shack. He threw the door open.

“Shadow! You gotta…hey, you ain’t got no clothes on, dude.”

Shadow looked down at himself. He didn’t usually pay much attention to what he looked like. His beard covered the top of his chest, so he couldn’t see that part anyway. His stomach wasn’t flat exactly – more like it sank in on account of him being so skinny. His hips were narrow and bony, and what with it being so hot his schlong and balls kinda swung down between his hard, thin legs. Guess he was sorta naked today. Oh well: It was laundry day.

“Ain’t an invitation. Whatcha want, Denny?”

Denny was a younger guy; lots younger than Shadow, with hair nearly to his waist and a wispy little mustache. He kinda looked like the sixties would have been hard on him, if he weren’t twenty years too young to have seen them. Pretty clearly he’d known some of the pleasures they’d had back then, though. Shadow didn’t mind other folks taking their pleasure any way they wanted, but Denny might have gotten into them maybe a little too hard. Which was probably how he’d ended up out here. Right now he was breathless and all worked up about something.

“You gotta come, Shadow! Dave Fortier’s dead, and I don’t know what to do with him!”

“Fortier’s dead? What you talkin’ about?”

“Dead as a hammer! Layin’ in his bed! We was gonna take his rifle and call some coyotes, you know, for the pelts. But when I got there he was dead!”

“Huh.” Shadow knew Fortier pretty well. Fortier was even older than Shadow; it seemed like he’d been in the desert forever, and he’d helped Shadow figure the first few things out when he first came. He used to brew up some pretty good hooch sometimes, and once in a little while Shadow would come by and help him drink it. Now Shadow felt a dark pain like some other little piece of his life had gone away without saying goodbye. “Hell. Well, he had been in pretty bad health, last few times I seen him. Guess it was just time. Dammit.”

“Shadow, I don’t know what to do! What we gonna do?”

“Gonna go figger out what’s the right thing, that’s all. Lemme find somethin’ to put on.” Shadow ducked back inside and looked around. There was an old pair of cut-offs on a shelf; fit for nothing but rags but they’d have to do. It figured he’d have visitors on laundry day. He slid them on and looked around for socks. Finding none dry, he pulled his boots on over his bare feet. Then he went back outside. “C’mon, Denny. In this heat, we better do whatever we gotta do pretty quick.”

“Uh, yeah.” Denny fell in step with Shadow as he hurried off the ridge toward Fortier’s place. “What we gonna do, Shadow?”

“Dunno yet! If he’s got family, we gotta find it out and let’em know. There’s folks around with cell phones, right?”

“Yeah, guess so. Don’t work ‘cept up on a ridge sometimes, though.”

“So, if somebody’s gotta call somebody, we go to one of those folks and get’em to use their phone. Prob’ly hafta call the cops first, or it won’t be all proper.”

“Cops!” Shadow heard Denny’s voice get kinda high. “Shadow, I don’t know ‘bout…”

“Oh, hell no. If somebody’s gotta call the cops, we just tell them folks about it and make ourselves scarce. I don’t like’em either, Denny. But long as he’s lived there, you can bet the cops know where to find him if them folks tell’em he’s dead. See?”

“Well, yeah, I guess. Butcha know, Dave didn’t like cops neither. Don’t seem right, leavin’ him to them. He wouldn’t’a liked it.”

“Well, we’ll see. Thing is, I don’t know if Fortier’s got family. We gotta do the right thing, Denny. If he’s got family, they gotta know. Butcha can’t just call some guy’s daughter and tell’er, ‘hey, your dad’s dead in the desert out here. Might wanna come get him before he gets too soupy.’ That just ain’t right. Townies gotta have forms and cops and coroners and funeral homes and shit. Got it?”

“Guess so. But what if he ain’t got no family?”

“Then I don’t know. That’s what we gotta figger out.”

Dave Fortier had a proper cabin, not like Shadow’s shack. It had a foundation of cement blocks and was made with real two by four framing and plywood with stucco on the walls and shingles on the roof; probably didn’t leak at all in the monsoon season. He even had a well and solar panels and a gasoline generator. Even so Shadow had always admired the way he knew how to live in the desert – after all, many years ago Fortier had taught Shadow the first things he ever learned about how to live out here. Like Shadow, Fortier didn’t need any of this shit. He just liked his comforts and was willing to work for them. Now Shadow hesitated on his porch. Not much point knocking on the door if Fortier was really dead, but it went against years of belief to just walk into another man’s house without permission.

He shook it off and opened the door. Fortier’s cabin was one room, with one corner walled off for a bathroom. Shadow knew he had a real indoor toilet, that flushed and everything. He knew because he’d spent a couple of smelly days one time helping Fortier clean out the fifty-five gallon drums he used for septic tanks. Shadow felt another pang: For all the stink, those had been good days. Shadow really liked Fortier. And now he was dead.

He looked toward the corner where Fortier kept his bed, and there he was. Dead as a hammer, just like Denny said. His eyes were closed and he didn’t look all curled up; must have died in his sleep. Must have been hot when he lay down, because he had no clothing or blanket. Judging from the way his color changed near the part he was laying on and the faint smell, he must have been dead a day or two. Whatever they were going to do with him, they needed to get it done today.

He looked irritably at Denny. “You couldn’t’a covered him up?”

Denny looked defensive. “Shit, Shadow! What if the cops came? They’d know somebody was here!”

“You’re an asshole, Denny.”

“Well, I didn’t know what to do.”

“Just find a blanket and cover him decently, would’ja? I gotta find letters and stuff.” Shadow glanced around the little cabin, and his eyes alighted on Fortier’s desk. Anything Shadow needed should be in there.

The desk was clean except for a small bundle of envelopes rubber-banded together, a single piece of paper, and a pen. On the paper was a single paragraph, written by hand: “Bury my ashes here on my property, if you don’t mind. Take whatever you want for payment.”

Shadow fell heavily into the desk chair. Fortier had known he was going to die! He wrote this and lay down, knowing damned well he might never get back up. And he didn’t call anybody. If he was that sick, why didn’t he go get somebody who could take him to a hospital or something? Shadow felt a flash of something like anger. Shit, if Fortier was that sick he could have come to Shadow for help, or just to be with him while he died if he figured it was time. He didn’t have to die all alone if he didn’t want to. Why the hell didn’t he tell somebody?

Then again, Shadow had known he was feeling poorly. Why didn’t Shadow keep a better watch on him? Fortier had been good to him. He should have been better to Fortier.

He turned his eyes to the bundle with the rubber band. Fortier meant whoever found the note to find that bundle, too. Shadow hated the thought of reading somebody else’s mail, but it was pretty clearly what Fortier wanted him to do. He pulled off the band and opened the first torn envelope.

It was a personal letter, and from the tone of what Shadow scanned it was from an ex-wife who wasn’t any too pleased with Fortier. There were repeated references to somebody named Jessica. Shadow re-folded the letter, returned it to the envelope, and reached for the next in the stack.

This one was from somebody named Jessica, who also didn’t seem to think much of Fortier. Again, Shadow didn’t read the letter in detail. But from the few instances of “Dad” that he scanned, it was pretty clear that “Jessica” was Fortier’s daughter. There was a lot – oh, an awful lot – of personal shit in these letters; stuff Shadow didn’t want to know anything about. He got the idea that Fortier’s decision to move way out here, many years ago, hadn’t been popular with his family and former family, and that it had brought up an awful lot of old history between them. Stuff outsiders shouldn’t have to read about. Nasty stuff. The sort of things that build up in an unhappy family.

The paper in these letters seemed old somehow. Curious, he looked at the postmarks on the first two letters and found that they were over twenty years old. He thumbed through the stack; there were three other envelopes from the same period, two from the wife and one from the daughter. The next was postmarked only a few weeks ago and wasn’t a personal letter; it was an official form. Shadow pulled it out and opened it. Inside was a death certificate for someone named Jessica Foxworthy, aged 37. He scanned down for the cause of death, and found it complicated. Shadow had to think back to things he had known or heard many years ago before he could read between the lines, but it finally came clear to him that this woman had died because her organs had shut down from excessive indulgence in pretty much every prescription drug in the pharmacopoeia.

Only one envelope remained in the stack, another personal letter, this one dated shortly after the death certificate. Shadow opened it reluctantly, fearing what he would find. Sure enough, it was a letter from the ex-wife and it was Fortier’s death sentence. The closing sentence, “I hope you die, you son of a bitch,” didn’t leave a lot of question about that. Fortier had taken it to heart. He’d already been sick, but he could have saved himself. Instead he chose to lay down and die.

Shadow leaned back in the chair. He gathered the envelopes, put them back in order, and wrapped them in their rubber band. Then he reached for the paper. Whatever had happened between Fortier and his family had happened decades ago, and was none of Shadow’s business. He guessed it was decent enough of Fortier to give somebody a history and a reason for his having chosen to just die like that, but it wasn’t important to Shadow. Fortier had always been good to him. Shadow would see to his last wish.

“Bury my ashes here on my property, if you don’t mind. Take whatever you want for payment.”

“Bury my ashes.” If Fortier had said ‘bury me,’ it would have been simple enough. But ‘bury my ashes’ – that was more complicated. Fortier wanted a funeral pyre, and Shadow had never built one of those. How long did it take to cremate a body in the old way? It was going to take work, and he hoped Denny was up to it.

“Hey, Denny! We’re gonna need a grave dug.”

Denny had been hanging out in the corner furthest from Fortier’s body. “Whadaya mean, Shadow?”

Shadow waved the paper. “He ain’t got no family, and he wants us to bury him here.”

“Oh. Okay, I guess.”

Shadow went out to Fortier’s shed. He had tools there, an old chainsaw, and some mix gas. Shadow smelled the gas; it was still good. He filled the saw and found that it started just fine with only a few pulls. Fortier always was good about keeping his tools repaired, and that was fine because they were going to need a lot of wood.

He got Denny working on the grave while he took the chainsaw down to the road; the graders were always killing juniper trees down there and dry juniper burned just fine. It took a long time to cut several trees and haul them up to where Denny was slowly digging the hole. After an hour or so he went into the cabin and found a pitcher of clean water. He didn’t figure Fortier would mind. He took it and a couple of cups outside and shared it with Denny. Then he got back to work.

The sun was low in the sky when they were finished. He had Denny slope the grave on the windward side, and built a pyre that would fall into the grave. First he built a square of the biggest wood and filled it with some smaller stuff. He carefully poured most of the mix gas into that, then built a platform of smaller wood on top. He soaked it with gasoline. Then he and Denny wrapped Fortier carefully in the blanket and carried him out to lay on the platform. They stood there, reluctant to take the next step.

“Shouldn’t we say somethin’, Shadow? Don’t seem right to just burn him.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Shadow folded his hands and faced the pyre. “This was Dave Fortier. He was a good guy, from everything I know. For sure he was good to me and Denny. I dunno what all happened in earlier years, but that ain’t important to us. All I know for sure was that while he was here he was a good guy. We’re sorry he’s gone from us.”

“Amen,” said Denny.

“Awright, let’s get it done.” Shadow pulled the sheaf of envelopes from the back pocket of his cut-offs. He rolled it and lit it with a cigarette lighter he’d found in the cabin, held it until it was burning well, and tossed it on the platform where he’d recently dumped the last of the gasoline. It burst into flame, and soon the whole thing was a tower of fire.

After an hour and a half or so the platform collapsed into the grave. The wind had come up, and there was plenty of wind pouring into the pit. It kept burning just fine, and as the big stuff burned down Shadow and Denny dropped in more of the wood Shadow had dragged up from the road to keep the fire going. They kept doing that all night, each taking turns while the other slept.

By first light Shadow could see no sign of bones in the pit: They’d all either collapsed or been covered up with wood ash. That would have to do. They let the fire die down, which took another few hours. Then they filled in the pit.

Shadow insisted that they clean the tools and put them away before they collapsed. They sat on the ground for a few minutes in silence. Then Denny asked, “What we gonna do about a marker, Shadow?”

“Don’t worry about it. He was my friend for a long time; I’ll make something.”

“Okay.” Denny looked over at the cabin. “Shadow, what we gonna do about his stuff?

Shadow got up and dusted off the seat of his cut-offs. “C’mon inside.”

He led Denny into the cabin, and showed him the note Fortier had left. “Bury my ashes here on my property, if you don’t mind. Take whatever you want for payment.”

“That means that since you helped bury him, you can have one thing o’his. Just one.”

“Says here, ‘whatever you want.’ What if I want all his stuff?”

Shadow never thought about what he did next. He just knocked Denny to the cabin’s floor and pushed his forearm against his throat while he pulled his sheath knife. He held the point to Denny’s eye and said, “Don’t let me ever find you stealin’ people’s stuff! ‘Specially not Dave Fortier’s. You wanna live here, don’t you ever steal stuff or nobody’s ever gonna put up with you. Got it?”

“But he’s dead, Shadow!”

Shadow pushed harder. “I know he’s fuckin’ dead! I ever catch you stealin’ any of Fortier’s stuff, you’re gonna wake up one night and me and this knife are the last fuckin’ thing you ever see.” He let Denny up. “Just so you know. Now, the deal is you can have one thing. Anything you want.”

Denny dusted himself off. “Jesus, Shadow! I don’ wanna steal nothing. I was just askin’.”

“Well, now I told ya. So decide whatcha want.”

Denny looked around. “Dave and me used to call coyotes together. He’s got a good rifle. Can I have that?”

“Sure. That’s one thing, ain’t it?”

“What about the ammo?”

“Rifle ain’t no good without ammo. Guess that’s one thing, too. Take all there is.”

“Okay. Jesus, Shadow, y’don’t have to get so rough.” Denny went to the cabinet where he knew Fortier kept his gun. “What you want?”

“I dunno I want anything.” But then his eyes settled on Fortier’s boots, at the foot of the bed. Fortier had had a really good set of boots, and his feet were about the same size as Shadow’s. Shadow’s boots were falling apart.

“Guess I’ll take these,” he said. “Remember when I first got here, he always told me you better stay well shod. Think maybe he wouldn’t mind.”

A little worried about Denny’s greed, Shadow made a point of locking the cabin when they left. He wasn’t sure why it mattered so much to him; Fortier was dead, after all, and somebody was going to get all this stuff at some point. But the thought of people rummaging through his friend’s stuff was just too much right then.

They went their ways, and Shadow came back to his shack. The filthy water with all his laundry was still in his sink. He didn’t have the heart to deal with it.

He took his boots off his bare feet and held one of Fortier’s nearly-new boots to his sole. It looked like they’d be a perfect fit, once he had some socks to wear.

Just then he wished he had some of Fortier’s hooch to drink. Come to think of it, he wished he had Fortier to drink it with. But that was never going to be again.

He held up the boots. “Thanks, Dave,” he said quietly. “Sorry about all that stuff that went before. Hope we did right by you.”

He tossed his old boots toward the door, and set the new pair in the place where the old ones had always stood at night. Then he lay down and tried to get some sleep.

But sleep was a long time coming.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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4 Responses to Here’s a free story.

  1. CorbinKale says:

    Of all the free stories I’ve read in my life, that was probably the freest.

    I did enjoy it. Why do I keep picturing you as Shadow? How many days has it been since you pulled a knife on someone? lol

    Thanks, Joel. You’ve got some serious talent.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I remember that story from a few years ago over at TMM. Lovely to read it again. Thanks K

  3. George Potter says:

    Joel, you should submit your Shadow stuff here:

    NEW MYTHS. It’s a pretty tasty little semi-prozine, looking mostly for modernized takes on folklore and legend. $40 bucks for fiction over 1000 words.

  4. Anonymous says:

    More please

To the stake with the heretic!