Albert woke up on his thirty-fifth birthday nothing matters. He didn't take a shower didn't eat breakfast didn't brush his teeth nothing matters. He drove into the woods and locked his keys in his car nothing matters. He kicked off his flip-flops.
He ran three miles barefoot down a root-wrinkled trail wearing shorts and a yellow tee. The forest was wet with dew and Albert poured sweat. He ran into a clearing where thick power lines drooped overhead and the sun flooded his dilated eyes. He stopped. The power lines crackled and buzzed. A pack of flies swarmed and bit his salty skin and Albert swung blindly at them. His heart was throbbing and blood pumped out from a hole in the ball of his foot. Now this was something. It was a healthy flow and Albert watched it and was proud of it. A red pool spread beneath him and he started to feel dizzy. He took off his shirt and wrapped it around his foot and pulled it tight into a knot. The flies attacked his exposed torso.
He limped up a dirt service road toward the ridge. The river was on the other side. A couple hours passed and his shin cramped from walking on his heel. He was determined to summit the ridge tonight but right now he needed off his feet. He entered the brush between the road and the forest and sat in the shade and examined the bottom of his foot. The bleeding had stopped. He rested maybe ten minutes then rose and continued marching uphill. He marched all day.
He reached the peak at sunset, hungry and thirsty and light-headed. He sat facing the river with his leg up on a log. The yellow shirt wrapped around his foot was now dark red.
Albert hoped the wide river would inspire him. As a boy he had loved to swim and the river had been an enchanted place. He surveyed the river now, studying the currents and eddies and chop, searching for a spark. There was nothing. The river flowed downhill like it always has and always will. There was nothing awesome about that today.
Clouds filled the darkening sky. Albert hobbled over to a steel tower and climbed onto the concrete foundation and lay on his back like a sacrifice. He had lost a lot of blood. The initial raindrops made him anxious, he didn't know why. He opened his mouth and a heavy shower washed him. He closed his eyes. All he could hear now was the rain and he fell into a deep sleep.
Albert woke up wet and shivering. The earth steamed. He saw a pool of water in a small depression in the concrete and rolled over and drank like a dog. He eased himself off the foundation and cried when his foot touched the ground. When the pain subsided he started scratching. Every square inch of his exposed skin itched. The bugs had feasted on him over the night and he drew blood from several red bumps. He kneeled and scooped dirty water from puddles and rubbed it over his body. Then he dropped his head and scooped the water, silt and all, into his mouth.
He limped into the forest and ate berries from a holly. He picked and fed for ten minutes without intermission. He couldn't get full.
He followed the power lines down the slope toward the obedient river, the solution of a differential equation. He walked for an hour before his bowels cramped and he pulled down his shorts and purged the mass of berries.
Hot and sweaty he carried on. When he reached the tall grass on the broad shore he settled like sand on a delta. His head dropped below the grass and he sank to the soil. The sun peaked in the sky. It didn't take long for the flies to find him and chip away at him and he did nothing to stop them.
Albert's punctured foot ached. He ran his fingers over a long, elevated scar on his leg from his thirty-second birthday, a bone protruding from the back of his wrist from his thirty-third, the nub where a finger had been before his twenty-ninth. Now it was his foot.
Snow was melting in the mountains and the river was rising as it would next year next decade next century next millennium. Time at once expanded to infinity and contracted to nil. The world would last forever, compressing Albert's experience of it—the only experience of it that mattered—closer and closer to zero. Albert was tired. He didn't feel like moving and he let himself fall asleep buried in the thick grass.
Albert woke up later in the afternoon no free will. It didn't matter nothing matters his heart pumped his neurons fired no free will. He was stood up he stood. A feeling ran through him he wanted to go home. His legs with nothing in them carried him forward he pushed his way through the grass.
His house was in the city ten miles away. Albert walked on the highway running along the river heading west. Gravel covered the shoulder and Albert hugged the white line. Cars slowed down passing him and heads turned to gape at him shirtless and shoeless with a bloody rag around his foot. A pickup truck pulled over in front of him and Albert hurried off the highway and hid in the trees until the truck left. Most cars drove on by but four more stopped and each time Albert dashed out of sight.
Albert did not stop once to rest. The pain signals from his foot no longer registered in his brain. He somehow maintained one foot stepping in front of the other.
Night fell and his mind wandered. Tomorrow he would be on a panel interviewing three candidates for a civil engineering position. The candidates would be nervous and Albert felt nervous now. He needed to be there to smile and put them at ease and hug them and tell them everything will be all right. He cried walking in the dark.
Albert's house key was in his car in the woods. He tried turning the knob on the side door even though he knew it was locked. He closed his eyes and inhaled slowly and opened his eyes and exhaled while striking the window next to the door with his fist. The glass cracked with a thud, Albert's knuckles deformed, and a stinging pain reverberated in his bones. A light turned on across the driveway and his neighbor Joan opened her side door. She saw Albert and froze.
"I'm okay," Albert said. "I locked myself out."
Joan stared at the blood dripping from Albert's hand. "Do you want me to call somebody?"
"No, no," Albert said. Joan looked afraid and Albert tried to smile. "I'm actually okay, Joan. Please. I need to break this window."
Joan didn't move and Albert didn't move and the blood kept dripping. Finally Joan retreated and her door closed and the light was gone. Albert waited for his eyes to adjust then thrust his fist through the glass and let himself in.
In a hot shower Albert washed off the sweat, silt and sand, dead gnats, dried blood, berry stain, burs, exhaust soot, and glass slivers. It all went down the drain. A clean Albert devoured two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and two liters of water. He brushed his teeth and set his alarm for six a.m. and collapsed into bed asleep.
Albert woke up.
About the author:
Jeremy Britton practices writing and engineering in Portland, Oregon. He has a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Virginia Tech. His short stories have been published in Prick of the Spindle, LITnIMAGE, and Mayday Magazine.