People never leave Lundy. Like the frog content in its pot of water, life slowly boils up around you. Next thing you know, the nicotine walls of the living room are swimming in ambulance light, your body fat has grafted to the couch, and a medic busts in, tripping over stacks of TV Guide and cans of Diet Coke stuck to the floor, reaching for his nose to pinch it shut.
At age fifteen, Cloud thought, to hell with curiosity killed the cat, leaped from the boiling pot, and took his old man with him. Dragged the bastard down the state road like a broken lawnmower.
The sun was high and the air sizzled. It might have been the sound of the old man’s cheek on the asphalt, sticking and peeling in the breezeless heat, but Cloud didn’t look back. The mortuary looming on the horizon coughed black billows that reminded Cloud of his mother. She’d been a smoker all her life—firsthand, secondhand, three-in-one-hand. At thirty-five, when doctors forced her to wheel around an oxygen tank, the old man started calling her his caddie, but nothing stopped her from lighting up.
The funeral director had hair like the shell of a shiny black insect. He gave Cloud the third degree.
“You understand this is not…typical,” he said. “This is atypical.”
“I suppose,” Cloud said.
The funeral director folded his fat, ringed fingers. “Perhaps he needs to be transported to a morgue. To determine the cause of death.”
“What is your relation to the deceased?”
The funeral director seemed to deflate slightly.
“What type of ceremony do you plan on having?”
“Would you like the number of a clergyman?”
“Will it be just a casket today?”
“Do any of the urns in our catalogue interest you?”
“The generic model, then?”
Cloud nodded again, signed some papers.
“How long’s it take to cook the son of a bitch?”
The funeral director’s concerned frown evened to a neutral slit.
“Ah, there is a three to five day waiting period. We can expedite at an additional cost of twenty-five dollars. For another twenty-five we deliver.”
But the funeral director didn’t understand the question. Cloud wanted to know how long it took for a body to disintegrate, a question the firemen had been too busy to answer when his house went up last year.
After a night of bonding—the old man instructing the boy on how to soften the impending hangover—Cloud noticed a strange glow in the sky over their home, and as they pulled closer up the drive it became clear the place was ablaze. The old man jumped from the truck as if driven by instinct, but Cloud saw the relief on the old man’s face when the sooty embrace of a fireman kept him from the flames. Cloud remembered the strobe-lit treetops and streams of water arching against the black sky. Then the awful creaking moan.
“About the clergyman,” the funeral director began. He looked dead himself, pale and bloated.
Without a word, Cloud left the parlor and stepped out onto a cobblestone main street named after some dead man he’d never heard of.
He walked back toward Lundy along the state road pimpled with trash and the popped zits of roadkill. This one billboard claimed life was about the journey, but he knew that was just a pick-up line for people who visited Florida for the sun, like it was some wellspring of eternal life. In Lundy, if you weren’t black already, the sun just turned you lobster red. Maybe there was a different sun on the coasts, one that didn’t wrinkle the air and turn the ground to liquid. Cloud stopped just outside where he thought the city limit might be, bent down and touched the scalding asphalt. No one in Lundy lay out to cook like those folks on the coast who aspired to be brown, but maybe they were onto something. Cloud stepped into the middle of the road, crouched down, spread out on his back and stared up at the sun like he was some tourist on a beach towel.
He couldn’t bring himself to cross that imaginary line, to walk past all the doggy doors he’d squeezed through on evening jaunts with the old man. At least then, before his mother died, the old man had his back. Not like at the citrus warehouse, when the old industrial airshaft gave under Cloud’s weight and he broke his arm in three places, lying there like he was now, waiting for the old man to bust in and save him, but all he heard besides his heart beating in his own damn head was tires screeching off and he knew his old man was in search of someplace to cook. He didn’t want to have to pass the ramshackle row of trap houses whose varying states of decay seemed to mimic his old man’s decline. Everything in Lundy was a landmark, every landmark a tombstone. Cloud could hear his old man’s voice like a morbidtour guide. And if you look to your left you’ll see the Food Lion dumpster, behind which your old man got busy and shared needles with many an unsavory whore. Down the street’s the clinic where they told me I caught the bug.
Cloud refused to die in Lundy, but he knew if he kept on living, he’d carry its memory like it was all he had.
When you hold a flame up to a bee, like Cloud did as a boy, its fur crackles away like a fuse and the bee pops into a magnificent orange spark and disappears. He imagined this was how his mother went. When the house collapsed, like her hollow left lung, Cloud swore he saw the dizzy flight path of a bee swirling heaven-bound out of the smoke.
That’d be the best way to die, Cloud thought, as he lay in wait for semis on the evening citrus route. There on the asphalt, he could feel himself cooking. If only he could reach the right temperature to bust open, like a string of fireworks left in the trunk of a hot car, for his rotten insides to ignite the air and the flames to just rise and rise and rise.
Nothing like that happened. The sun winked in and out. He listened close, hoping for a sizzle or a crack, but all he heard was the low drone of the state road, while way up in the atmosphere a jet scraped the sky and shed clouds like snakeskin.
All rights reserved to Ryan Rivas.