Fiction · 12/04/2019

The Night Beyond the Boughs

I didn’t go to the funeral. My grief was too obtuse, too childish to be experienced communally. Instead I put on a black concert tee and watched infomercials like we sometimes did. It took the television twenty-eight minutes to sell us any old thing. Not that either of us had any money. Magic brooms, toilet brushes, stain removers. So many of those pitches were about cleanliness, I see now. People will give anything to feel clean.

I went outside at sunset. I’d written a message in permanent ink on a balloon. I stood in the parking lot and let go of the string. The balloon got caught in a tree. Artemis from three units down threatened to call the cops on me for littering.

“Ever heard of the dying oceans?” he yelled through the window.

“Our neighbor died,” I yelled back. “That’s more immediate.”

I wanted to slash his car’s tires, but Arty loves the Earth too much to own a car. I took his bike instead. I set off to do a loop around the block. It was such a nice evening, I kept riding to the graveyard. Not the graveyard, but a graveyard.

Talking to a kid ghost was out of the question. I needed someone ancient. Enter Armando Guillen! According to his stone, he lived to be 108! I told him my dead friend and I used to challenge each other to climb trees. People would stop to watch us, two fat middle-aged losers clinging perilously to branches, cavorting with squirrels.

“Climb that motherfucker right there,” one of us would say walking back from the bar, and the other one had to do it, you had to try, even if it was a big fir tree and there was nothing to grab onto but an ugly ogre of a trunk. Sometimes people called the cops. We didn’t blame them. Why would a grown man climb a tree?

Sitting by Armando’s grave I was seized by a terrible fear that Artemis had gone after the balloon with a ladder, or perhaps a blow dart. I pictured him tossing it, tragically deflated, into the dumpster.

I thanked Armando and pedaled as fast as I could. I heard a pitchman’s voice in my head as I rode through the dusk: Limited time only, time is running out, this won’t last long! The product is irrelevant, always. Only the urgency is real, its own kind of currency. You won’t believe this is real! Which was true. It didn’t seem real. He didn’t have to die, not yet, but I understand why he did.

I put Artemis’ bike back. I would never really slash someone’s tires, even if they deserved it. The balloon was still there, trapped near the top of the redwood that towered over our shitty apartment complex. It was dark now, and my legs were stiff from pedaling, but I had to try.

Hand, foot, hand, foot. Rhythm is the thing. The branches will hold near the bottom, but soon I was eighty feet up, and they were too thin. The next step could kill me. Arty’s window lit up. I figured he’d call the cops when he saw me, but he didn’t. He just shook his head and smiled like he’d solved a puzzle. Then the light went off.

The balloon was another twenty feet up. I wrapped myself around the trunk and began shifting my weight back and forth. Soon the treetop was swaying, the balloon dancing on its branch. I kept shaking, shaking, shaking until each moment was at my command, the top of that tree was in motion, shimmying in the dark, and then the balloon was free, it bobbed tentatively at first like it was nodding in thanks or saying goodbye, then it shot up toward heaven.

I yelped. I held tight to my branch and watched my words vanish into the sky. The night beyond the boughs darkened, revealing faint stars. They were pretty, yes, but that was not enough. So many branches separated my feet from the parking lot. I sat there breathing in the dark, studying them. Plotting. There were a thousand paths down, maybe fewer. I only needed one.

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Chad Schuster’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Potomac Review, Barrelhouse and elsewhere. Find him at www.chadschuster.com or on Twitter @Chad_Schuster.