Little Lost Man
a short story by Marlene Leach

“I don’t think it was a good idea to let him go out."

Teresa sipped her coffee, her eyes not really focused on anything yet.

“There was no ‘let’ about it," she answered. “He’s not a prisoner. He hasn’t gone out in the past because he hasn’t wanted to."

John shrugged, looking irritated at his inability to express his thoughts.

“I don’t mean that," he said. “I don’t know, I just think maybe you should have gone with him. He’s been inside all these months. What if he gets out there and all of a sudden he starts thinking the telephone wires are beaming alien transmissions at him?"

Teresa smirked, turning her head away.

“He won’t. He’s been fine for the last three months. Anyway," she added, “it wasn’t the telephone wires, it was the satellite dishes."

“There’s a difference?"

“Sure."

“Mind telling me?"

“Satellite dishes are much more reasonable."

~

He lit another cigarette. His hands were already red and chapped from the cold. He’d meant to get a pair of gloves. He just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. He tucked his hands back up in his sleeves, with the cigarette barely poking out the end.

The Bartletts’ dog, a black Lab, was standing at the edge of their yard, peering at him through the mesh of the fence.

Phil watched it warily while he took his first drag. He didn’t like the way the dog looked at him. Never had. He stomped his feet to warm them a little. His toes were frozen. He was a large man with thinning reddish brown hair and vague brown eyes. One of his eyes was slightly crossed making him appear more befuddled than he was. His Army field jacket offered adequate protection against the October elements, but the rest of him was cold.

He considered crossing the street to avoid the dog, then decided against it. This was a simple routine matter, a walk to the end of the road and back. A mile at the most and a straight line.

He kept walking, staying in the dirt at the side of the road. As he got closer to the dog, he ducked his head and glanced at it sideways.

“Hey, Elsie," he muttered.

“Hey, Phil," the dog replied in a voice equally devoid of enthusiasm.

He glanced quickly back at the ground and considered walking on, pretending he hadn’t heard. He even snapped the rubber band on his wrist like they’d taught him to do in the Outpatient Day Program. That meant ‘Dangerous Thoughts: Steer Clear.’ Talking animals, aliens, satellite dishes, and prayers in which God answered back were “Dangerous Thoughts." He quickly looked up and down the road: no cars coming. The shades on the Bartletts’ windows were drawn.

Phil stopped, shuffled his feet and stared at the dog.

“What’s up?" he asked, and dropped his cigarette in the dirt, crushing it out.

“What’s up?" the dog repeated, barely managing to avoid sounding shrill. “I’ll tell you what’s up. Those nudniks—" she nodded in the direction of the house, “sit inside watching the ballgame while I sit out here and freeze my tail off. That’s what’s up. Some common courtesy you think they could show me, but no … that’s too much to ask. Lord, I ask you, why me? Day in, day out, and always the same—"

“Hey, man, that’s rough but I have to go," Phil muttered, glancing at his wrist where a watch would have been if he owned one.

“You have to go?" the dog repeated. “What, suddenly you’re some big businessman? You can’t take five minutes for an old friend? Oh please, fine, go; don’t let me keep you. Heaven forbid, who am I? I should drop dead tomorrow. Who needs me? Go on, please, don’t let me keep—"

Phil hurried on, snapping his rubber band furiously as he walked. “That’s why you don’t talk to dogs," he reminded himself. At least not that dog.

He’d gone roughly a quarter of a mile now. Past the Bartletts and the Kellers.

The same territory. He’d grown up here. All the same little back roads. Everything always the same, but still it had been years since he’d been out here.

Nothing’s changed.

Everything’s changed.

He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and stared directly up at the sky as he walked so he’d grow dizzy. He could almost hear the lazy drawling voice of Teresa in his mind.

Schizophrenics always look younger than they are. It’s a Peter Pan thing.

“Pah!"

He spun around several times and almost flopped over on the ground, but that was too much. He needed to be alone longer before he reached that reduced level of inhibition.

He kept walking, his thoughts racing in their usual way.

Everything compartmentalized, squeezed and crammed into tiny cubbyholes. They made him cram everything in there so his mind would look nice and tidy for inspection. Then, when the boxes were nice and full, and the mind inspection-ready, they began compressing the boxes, hoping to squeeze and destroy all those strange little odds and ends.

Well, excuse me, said the little red man, but these happen to be my life’s treasures. With wounded dignity, he picked up a tattered rag doll, brushed it off, and began reopening the little boxes.

Phil smirked. Somewhere, someone was humming a Pearl Jam song. He looked around and spotted a crow on the telephone wire. The crow was bouncing up and down, just slightly, ditty-bopping along to the song. It caught Phil’s eye and nodded. He nodded back. The crow resumed humming, and Phil joined in, hearing the lyrics in his mind. ‘I don’t wanna hear from those who know/ I would rather starve than eat your bread/ All the things that others want for me/ Can’t buy what I want because it’s free.’ *

After that, a guitar riff and a bunch of gibberish. Phil lost interest.

He kept walking. The landscape was so peaceful and serene that it was easy to just keep going. He wondered why he had spent so many months afraid to go out. Lying in bed at night, the comforter pulled up to his chin, wrapped around him. The air of the room wrapped around him, and the walls of the house wrapped around that. Layer upon layer upon layer so nothing could get in. It was only at night that things livened up. Darkness scratched on the windowsill, grinning at him through the panes. We see you, Phil. We’ll come get you. We’ll take you away on black swans. We’ll fly you up to the sky and there we’ll keep you.

He imagined the black swans carrying him away, and his little neighborhood growing smaller and smaller until it disappeared completely.

Daytime was another story. During the day everything was perfectly still and white. Even the air didn’t move. Phil drifted through the house, tiptoeing without being aware of it or maybe it was only that he didn’t make as much noise here as he would have elsewhere. He sat out in the living room, sipping coffee with a pastry in front of him on the coffee table. He wrapped the blanket around him and watched Good Morning, America, then Leeza, and other morning talk shows. He liked Good Morning, America. He was in touch with everything, but one step removed. It kept him grounded. Plus they always smiled. At noon, he’d watch Jerry Springer then do crossword puzzles or get dressed. After that, he just wandered through the house or stared out the windows.

I’ll go out one day.

He kept promising himself that after he got out of the hospital, but he didn’t dare. He was afraid of what might happen if he did.

He’d told Teresa and John that he had no memory of the incidents leading up to the hospital, and they’d accepted it because he’d been crazy;  they just naturally assumed that a faulty memory went with being crazy. He’d lied, though. He remembered all the events leading up to the hospital. It made him grin and squirm and duck his head to think that he had done such things. Wearing a gas mask in the streets to protect against pollution. Wearing the long white robe of Christ. The secret messages from the aliens. Dozens of magazine and books that he’d purchased for their hidden subtext because he now understood the underlying connection behind everything and that God had chosen him.

Everything had swum away. During that time, the air had been yellow and glowed with excitement and possibility. He ate sunlight and each day he climbed a little higher. And then they’d lassoed him, or maybe he’d only gotten frightened when he’d gone too high, and the light was too bright. They took him away and patched him back together, and his sister, Teresa, had offered him sanctuary till he got ‘back on his feet.’

He folded his arms, cupping his elbows with either hand as he passed by the Wigleys’ house. He did it partially for warmth and partially to hold himself together. He had to be very careful to hold himself together now. There could be no more eating sunlight, no more trips to Galilee. He was not a diplomatic ambassador for aliens or a prophet for the Lord.

He was only Phil, 35 and unemployed, and reality was bran flakes for breakfast, the still white air, Good Morning, America.

He’d reached the end of the road. He looked around for a moment, but there was nothing to see. He turned around and began heading back.

Something is different.

Something was different, but he tried not to focus on it. Even when he passed the squirrel by the side of the road, he made a very special effort not to look at it.

He kept walking. It seemed to be taking much longer than usual to reach the familiar landmarks, but that was fine. There was no rush. It was a straight line from here back to Teresa’s house. Once, he glanced up when a ray of sunlight poked through the clouds.

“What are you looking at?" God thundered, and Phil quickly looked back at the ground.

He kept walking.

~

John came back in, car keys still in his hand, and shook his head as soon as Teresa glanced at him. She bit her lip, staring out the window. It was almost dark. John tossed the keys on the table.

“He’s not out there. I drove everywhere. Either he got a ride somewhere or he’s out in the woods."

“He was just going to the end of the road," Teresa said.

“Obviously he went farther than that," John muttered. He glanced at Teresa and she saw the flat I-told-you-so in his eyes.

‘Don’t say it,’ she thought. ‘Oh God, I can’t stand it if you say it.’

John took a deep breath, sat down at the table and sighed.

“I told you he shouldn’t be—"

“Ohhhh!"

She moaned and flopped her head down on the table.

“Teresa, be reasonable. You knew he shouldn’t—"

“Gaah!" She began slapping her palms against the table without lifting her head. John gave another weary sigh, then gave up. Teresa heard him push back his chair and leave. She smiled to herself.

At least I learned a few good tricks from Phil.

~

It was almost completely dark. He kept walking. His teeth were clenched so hard that it hurt. He stared ahead, squinting. There was no sign of any houses. Just the road. No traffic.

Oh, you’re lost.

It was the little white cotton man. Phil hadn’t wanted to hear from the little white cotton man but there he was, hunkered over in Phil’s mind; his little soft voice whispering of his fear, big black charcoal eyes wide and frightened.

Phil strode out into the middle of the road. This would destroy the fantasy. He lay down on the blacktop and stared up at the darkening sky. Any moment now, he would hear the rumble of an engine and have to bolt up. He waited. And waited some more.

‘What if no one comes along?’ he thought.

But that was crazy. Somebody had to come along eventually.

If I could even find a house, he thought. Then I could call.

Even that wasn’t to be had. Nothing but the wilderness on either side, and the road stretching out before him.

He ran a hand through his hair, grinning, trying to keep the fear within him from taking over.

All right, this is funny, you have to admit it. Lost on a mile long walk.

What’s funny about it, his mind answered back. Lost on a stretch of road with no sign of civilization in sight.

“Nobody’s lost," Phil said aloud. The words floated into the air, hung there for a moment, then fell softly to the ground.

He kept walking.

After a little while, he felt the need to reassure himself because his chest was feeling funny and it was getting hard to breathe.

“I know this neighborhood," he said louder.

Nobody answered, but from somewhere came the wisp of a thought. No, you don’t. Not anymore.

Maybe you never did, another voice suggested. Maybe you only thought you did.

Phil scowled and didn’t answer. He walked even faster, wrapping his arms around himself.

You can find your way home. You are not lost.

He continued walking as one by one the little voices in his head began screaming. There was no one to answer them, though; only the night wind cutting through the trees, whispering, over and over again.

Lost.

  

©1999 Marlene Leach

*©Pearl Jam

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