George watched a little red-brown spider build a web in the bushes. He sat on the porch stoop; fat pollen drifted through the street, caught in exhaust fumes. It was warm for October and the rain had momentarily subsided, but the spider paid no attention to heat or pollen or George. It was an architect, stringing together a masterpiece. Not a home, though. A trap.
Sometimes, George felt as if the home he’d built had also been a trap. Only, instead of catching flies it was meant to snare icons of success. So far, though, it had caught just him, trapped him in the American way of life. His life passed day-by-day in the same manner: wake, shit, eat, shower, dress, commute, work, commute, eat, shit, sleep. He lived the same few frames of a film over and over. The spider was confined to the web as much as the fly, George thought, but at least the fly’s stay was short.
The web swayed in the wind as it gained lines, gained weight. George’s own home had also gained weight. Yes, the things he held onto for sentiment weighed him down physically, but he also collected emotional weight, weight that swayed in life’s breezes and threatened to catch fire, turning his meticulously mapped ideas of what his life should be on end.
In the spring, he had moved into a one-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend, Tandy, and her cat. The apartment had hardwood floors and he and Tandy danced barefoot and had a lot of sex over the summer. George forgot his fears best he could. He pushed those flames demanding to be fed into the back of his mind.
George and Tandy bought a carpet and the cat clawed at it and stretched out on it, especially when the weather was warm. Often, the cat lazily stared up at the white cracked ceiling, which had a small hole in it resembling an eye. Sometimes, George would follow the cat’s gaze up into that hole in the ceiling and his mind would return to a time several years earlier when he had still been unburdened with guilt.
In basic military training, George had worked out with the rest of his squad in the early morning when the stars still shined. During their stretches, after running miles and doing hundreds of pushups, he would lay on the ground exhausted and stare into the stars dusting the pre-dawn sky, letting his mind wander away, if only for a moment.
Staring at the hole in the ceiling, laying on his back on the carpet next to his cat, his mind returned to those stars. They were still up there, above that hole. If George could get close enough, he suspected he could see them. He could peek out, as if looking through a keyhole, and see the entire universe at once, instead of only in snapshots moment by moment.
The summer he and Tandy lived together, George had often sat next to the window in their apartment and watched the street quite a bit. Across from their apartment, a sea of leaves blew in the wind. Their veined surfaces shimmered golden green in the sun, and people walked by on the sidewalk toting groceries and babies and dogs. Some looked at their feet, ensuring they didn’t step in shit. Others watched the leaves blow and meandered along. George wanted to meander. To idle through life. But his mind wouldn’t let him. His thoughts turned over too quickly ... idleness took concentration, which George lacked.
Once, a bald man with a long gray goatee stopped at the tree in front of the apartment and cried for three minutes. Silent tears that fell onto the oak’s roots. Then he wiped his eyes and walked on, pulling his pants up around his skinny waist. George wondered what had broken him.
Somewhere, this reality always broke, for everyone, eventually. Just like the spider’s web, reality was temporary. The internal structures would inevitably fail. This, George knew, and he wondered how long it would be before his life’s little anchor points no longer held. He needed an escape pod. This he knew.
By late September, the rain had returned and George and Tandy had retreated into hibernation. George spent hours watching tutorials online about boat building, he read blogs about it, he took in all the information he could freely find from library books. All the while Tandy laughed at him or shook her head. She didn’t believe he would begin.
But then George bought some lumber, two saw horses, and set to building the boat. He took over most of the living room, filling it with sketches, bits of tutorials he had printed, even moving the couch out from the wall and stacking lumber behind it. It was at this point that Tandy first called him crazy.
George knew he had problems. Physically and mentally.
First off, his face was strange. His nose was crooked from a break, his eyes a little too far apart. And damn, his ears would fit well on a tiny elephant. Mentally, he was so small, and he felt it. He went through times when he didn’t know if his thoughts were real or if reality was his thoughts. A little of both, he supposed. And there were times when he lost thought all together. It seemed as if he could only remember a few seconds at a time. This was annoying, as he constantly was itching to recall some little trifle of information that just moments prior seemed important. Making grocery lists in this state was impossible. He didn’t recall if this had started before or after the military.
He knew one other thing for certain though. His self-esteem issues had led him to his first career: He had spent several years as a soldier in the high desert in Afghanistan. Dancing and singing was the name of the game. He was the great circus monkey, the performing gorilla, the juggling bear in a tiny hat atop his unicycle. He recalled one cold night in October, almost two years ago to the day, he had dug into the earth, moving the sand and rocks, and with every shovel full of sand, he loathed being a soldier more. So he invented a place to go when reality was too much to deal with, when he was too hot, too cold, too disgusted by the world and himself. He called this place Kangaroon Country.
Kangaroon Country was a place in George’s mind where he could be free. Sometimes, when he couldn’t sleep because fear of his own demise—and worse, the memory of the lives he had taken—flashed beneath his lids, he would crawl, clawing his way into Kangaroon Country.
Once there, his fear lifted, his guilt stopped pursuing him. He saw beauty and truth. A form of truth, a form of beauty, so subjective that they became fantastical versions of themselves only George could recognize. In Kangaroon Country, rabbits as big as cattle loped across brush-strewn hills. Bananas grew from the ground as big as mountains. His mind twisted the world into a wondrous place of escape.
Sometimes, George suspected he was depressed. He looked down now at his hands. They were square blocks, made for smashing or gripping things that smashed. Tandy’s hands were delicate, built for caressing, comforting, and creating. George loved her hands, but he feared this would pass.
He had found that people were easy to love briefly. Then, you began hating them. You hated their terrible faces, their stupid stories, their pathetic problems. He hoped this didn’t happen with Tandy.
He thought of this a lot, as he lay on the carpet in the living room. Maybe that was just an excuse, though. Maybe the truth was that George was difficult to love.
Sometimes, if he stared too long, he could see that carpet grow like grass. The pattern turned three-dimensional. It was gibberish, he supposed. His mind playing tricks. But he would stare at it with all his focus, and it would squirm across the floor. Eventually, if he stared long enough, he would lose focus and get lost in the paisley patterns. Fireflies flitted across his vision, just beyond his grasp, hints and nothing more.
Other times, dark splotches, shadows of things he’d done (he supposed) crept around him and carried him forward in time.
When he left the military, his dance changed, his song changed, but he was still dancing and singing in his head just to keep the ugliness at bay. He tried to take the ugliness inside him and smash it into clay. Mold it into something new. He tried to be strong. He tried to forget. He tried to chase truth and beauty. But the death of his pursuit happened quickly. It happened with those words Tandy spoke: “You’re crazy.” She didn’t say them joking. She didn’t say them with a laugh. “You’re fucking crazy, George. You know that, right?”
If Tandy thought he was crazy, George couldn’t be honest with her. He couldn’t be himself if he felt he needed to act like someone else for her.
With the death of honesty died George’s pursuit of truth. And with it, his pursuit of beauty. Once lies become reality, then honesty and beauty are dead. Honesty and beauty are so closely linked that the death of one kills the other. They’re symbiotic.
So George huddled into his mind with his guilt. He built his boat in there. It got so large, it filled his head and he could no longer contain it. The day that happened, he and Tandy had a fight. It ended with George saying, “I need to know that this is okay. If there ever was a time for you not to be cold, now is it. I need to hear that this is okay.”
“I love you but I’m not happy,” Tandy said.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Tandy said. “This is over.”
George wept. She left. The door clicked closed. He was alone. Just him and the cat, the little beast.
He twisted himself into the smallest space he could find, right up against the couch, and he peeled his skin back and peered inside. He dug deep, past the protective layers, through the meat, into the bone. He found he was made of nothing. He existed and yet he did not. There was no George, only flesh, made up of tiny bits of microscopic cosmos that he didn’t control and would soon disintegrate to nothing.
Waves of saltwater flowed through the apartment. So much water that it picked up the lumber and sloshed it side to side. His tools banged against the boards, against the walls, against him. The storm rose to the ceiling. If ever he needed a boat, now was it. Waves burst through the floorboards of the living room. The hardwood floor they’d danced on was destroyed, flotsam knocking holes in the walls.
Eventually, quiet calm overcame the sea and left him adrift in his mind to fall asleep. That night, he dreamt.
The lion hunted George mercilessly. He knew it was out there, so he ran.
He sprinted through trees, branches cut his face, and the leaves caught droplets of his blood that slipped and splattered onto blades of grass below.
He ran through strange woods and familiar forests both. Once through a city, where there were no people. Until, he ran into an apartment where a birthday party was taking place. People were laughing, eating cake, circled around a pile of presents. The party ended, everyone left. Then the lion showed up and began mauling him.
George slapped and clawed his way across the carpet as the lion played with him. He managed to isolate himself in the kitchen, finally, and frantically rummaged for a weapon. All he could find was a single paring knife, meant for zesting lemons and slicing limes, not killing lions, but it seemed a better option than his fingernails versus the beast’s claws and fangs. So he picked up the fucking knife and grit his teeth.
The apartment faded away, and George was back in the woods, now with his three-inch blade. The lion was still watching, following and circling through the foliage. It got closer and finally sprang, latching on. It ripped into George with its teeth, holding him in place with its paws and digging in with claws. George stabbed at the beast with the knife in his left hand and slapped and punched at it with his right hand.
But the lion didn't flinch. George felt something sharp, though it didn't hurt. Terror had wiped the pain away. He felt nothing but rage. He slapped at the lion’s face. He punched its nose and clawed at its fucking eyes but its hide was thick, worn hard with muscle, and the open thrashing mouth forced George to remain on the defense.
George never stopped fighting. Even when his teeth chipped on each other, even when the lion tore the fingers off his right hand and swallowed them whole, even when the lion’s claws pinned his leg down. He never stopped. He fell back, screaming, punching in vain at the animal as it went to work on his calf muscle. George kicked and raged and thrashed and swung and hollered and kicked more. The fucking animal took his leg off at the knee anyway, a blunt amputation.
Not soon enough, it could never have come soon enough, George realized the lion was gone. He didn’t know how long he had been slapping and beating at the air. He was just thankful that the lion had gone.
Trembling, he looked down at his body. His right leg, nothing below the knee. The lion had torn it off. He could see his kneecap was still attached. It hung from stretched tendons and was covered in blood, dirt, and saliva.
George pulled off his belt. The Earth was rolling away from the sun. He wasn’t sure how many minutes he lost to shock. Time lost meaning. When life was measured in seconds, seconds become hours. Time dilates before death's door.
He pulled the tourniquet tight. Must have taken him ten seconds or less, but it felt like hours. He cinched his belt around his lower thigh; the flesh was so eaten, so shredded that the muscle tore away under the belt's pressure. The leather squashed the dangling meat.
He screamed and still the bleeding didn’t stop. So he pulled the belt up further, into the remaining muscle, to the top of the thigh, still intact. Sliding it just under his crotch and below his buttocks. He breathed heavily and pulled the belt taut.
He dragged his aching, bloody body to the closest tree and propped himself up. He lost about an hour then, he thought, to the shock. Terror stuns to stupor. Violence takes root and becomes you, turns you to a zombie. Memories fail to form, so talking of that state is impossible really. All you catch is glimpses on either side.
The next thing George knew he was staring at a hand. A left hand. His left hand. He recognized tiny scars from childhood scraps. Yet, at the same time, it wasn't his hand. His heart raced as he regained some clear thought. He was missing his pinky and middle finger. Chewed off in the fray. Most likely inside that fucking monster.
George gripped the knife with both his mutilated hand and his whole hand. He held it out as the sun set. Red and yellow light pierced the blue. He kept his eyes on the horizon, waiting. Because he knew that lion had done just what it intended. It left him alive. And it'd be back to eat the rest soon. These woods were a trap.
The night dragged on. George watched the dark rise. As his eyes adjusted, he heard rustling, hoping it came from the canopy above but it was hard to tell. He watched the leaves sparkle as the moon rose. He was so thankful when the moon appeared low in the sky, a butter-yellow bowl of light. It made everything seem so bright. His mouth turned salty from thirst and blood loss. But he stayed still, holding the knife, waiting for the lion. Until he grew too tired, half delirious.
He skimmed into strange places. Unreal scenes crept across him. The woods stared back at him with a million glimmering moonlit leaves for eyes.
At dawn, the lion came back for more. George saw it watching from the brush, low to the ground. George screamed and hollered and slapped and spat and screamed more. He screamed until his lungs burst, but the lion just stared, remained still. When George had screamed himself breathless, the animal slipped from the foliage and went back to work on him. It was breakfast time.
George beat at it with his mutilated hand, useless club, and stabbed at him more, but he failed to scare it away. This time the lion took his right arm and disappeared among the green.
Morning sun broke through the canopy. George was delirious from dehydration, blood loss, but his heart kept pumping. Instinct is strong.
He pulled himself, gruelingly slowly, one armed, one legged, through the woods. Perhaps he made it an eighth of a mile before passing out. Probably less. When he woke, he wasn’t sure how much time had passed. The sun was setting again, but it could have been that same day or a week later. George had no idea.
He looked into the woods and the lion watched him again. Its golden eyes curious, calm, hungry. George dragged himself, inches at a time, across the forest floor. The lion followed him, one soft step at a time.
George broke down then. He cried. As his tears splashed onto the dirt and fallen leaves, the lion took his left leg off. George screamed. Less this time. The pain was overloading his senses.
After the lion returned back into the underbrush, he continued on. He pulled himself through the woods with only his left arm, hand missing fingers. He made little progress.
Night fell. The lion came back again and ate George’s left arm. He let it happen in silence this time. There was no thrashing. The lion left George limbless in the woods. And so, George waited to bleed out but he never did. He stared into the stars as the world turned over. Round and round it went, and all the people and all the jobs and all the industries and governments and militaries didn’t stop it. It all turned over as George lay limbless, helpless, hopeless.
Finally, the lion walked out of the woods again. This was it. It would finish him. George screamed at it, only now he was yelling for it to kill him. To just end it. Instead, the lion lay down next to George for the night.
George had no arms, no legs. He couldn’t move away. He silently laid next to the lion, the monster that mutilated him, waiting, hoping that he’d die at dawn, but knowing the lion would never let him die. It would continue to pull him apart bit by bit for the rest of his life.
He woke trembling the next morning. In the shower, the water washed away the good with the bad, and by the time he shut off the water, he was numb. But when he closed his eyes to dry his face with the towel, he saw the lion staring back at him from the darkness. That beast would follow him the rest of his life, it would tear him apart and leave him broken until he figured out a way to kill it.
Tandy returned an hour later and silently began packing her things. She didn’t have much. A few boxes. Suitcases. A lamp with a broken shade. She left the cat.
As soon as she was gone, George set to building his boat in privacy.
He spent the better part of the autumn constructing the boat. It was hard work, especially to do alone, but it was good work. He laid the frame, on blocks, in his living room, and by the time he had constructed the ribs he knew it was going to be beautiful. Yes, the project blocked the whole living room, but no one was there to complain, so George kept building his ship.
That fall, he and Tandy began speaking again. Actually, with the pressure of romance removed, they became better friends than they had been lovers. She started dating a literature student named Stan who was working on a doctorate degree, studying symbolism in forgotten literature and other things that few cared about any more.
Once in a while, Tandy and Stan would come over for a beer and they’d sit on George’s stoop, and they’d tell each other stories and talk about nothing in particular. It was nice. George liked Stan. It was odd how things worked out, so George had been told by people smarter than he, and now he saw firsthand that was true. Sometimes, the people that come into your life are like a stone skipping across a pond. They touch, they go, and then they sink out of sight, leaving ripples behind that last much longer.
Before long, George was spending more time with Stan than he was with Tandy. And he had himself a 15-foot vessel in his living room. The wood was almond orange and smoother than George’s palm. It was grand, immaculate even.
“And how do you intend to get it out?” Stan said one afternoon as the boat was nearing completion.
“Of your house.”
George looked at the boat, at his front door, back at the boat. “I’ll be damned.”
And so there the boat sat, days, months, years. His real-life ship in a bottle, often with George in it, drinking a beer, and the cat perched on the port side, its tail dusting the wood. He put a TV on the stern. It would never sail, not ever see water, but damned if it wasn’t beautiful.