Edition 13: Keeping An Open Mind by Dan Rabarts
When it comes to the question of what makes us individuals and where we can find that special spark, Josh thinks he has the answer. Dan Rabarts was third placed in the 2013 IFWG Publishing Australia Story Quest competition, winning the judges over with his clear style and dark storytelling. SY
Joshua knew he was guilty. He just didn’t know why.
There had been a time, before the accident, when it had all fitted together well enough. A time when things had made sense. There had been echoes of laughter and the glow that reminded him of late summer, good times remembered but fading. Sitting on the riverbank, sharing a durry, swigging from a glass flask, squeezing his eyes against the burn of cheap raw liquor—the best they could afford—and contemplating everything from the meaning of sunrise to whether or not there really was a Great Hereafter. They had reached an agreement, Joshua and those whom he had once called friends, that what lay beyond was whatever you believed it would be. He had, in the folly of his youth (not so long ago), believed that this husk of blood and bone and brain had the power to summon an afterlife of his choosing, simply by willing it so. He wished that he still held to such frivolous dreams. But he had seen what happens when a man is rent from jaw to spleen. There is blood, and bone, and the reek of copper and shit. He had seen the grey and brown that lurks within the skull, that frail temple that hides man’s concept of soul and lets him believe that after death there is anything more than dust or ash or the long devouring of worms.
Yet somehow he knew that what he had done was wrong.
He had simply been driven to know for sure. Before the accident, ideas had been enough. He had lived on ideas, floated on them, fed on them, formulated them, doing all he could to keep old ones alive and wrest new ones from the depths of his imagination. They all had their place, and Joshua was never afraid to share them. He was many things; an ideasmith, some might say. A teller of stories, a conspiracy theorist, a player of games, a gifted raconteur. Ideas were his flesh and blood.
Ray had always laughed, and been along for whatever crazy ride Joshua had cared to take him on. Joshua, after all, was a savant, and no idiot. He certainly wasn’t crazy. After the accident, Ray had been the first to head out with Joshua. It’s Halloween, he’d said. Screw the doctors, when a guy’s been laid up for six months he deserves a night on the piss, and what better night than Halloween?
He didn’t mention Joshua’s brother. There were things that no-one really wanted to talk about, not yet.
Ray had some spare cash. They could hit the bottle store, get a bit liquored, smoke some of the weed that Ray had scored from up the valley the other day, and then, if Josh was in the mood, Ray might shell out to get him laid. It must’ve been a while, and a man’s gotta do, don’t he?
Joshua ceded that it sounded like a good idea.
Prior to the accident, it had always been a good idea, and aside from the bald patch and the scars and the regime of little pills, what had really changed? He might’ve been told that it was unwise to mix alcohol with his meds, but Joshua also understood that there was a time for following the rules and a time for bending them. It was a fundamental right, and this was most definitely one of those times. Many of Joshua’s best ideas had come when he’d been on the piss, and since the accident he’d had so few good ideas that he was fairly sure he deserved a chance to spin the old wheels and blow out the cobwebs.
Poor Ray. Maybe they had gone too deep too soon. Maybe he had stirred up angry ghosts who ought not be stirred by asking about Pauly. By reminding Joshua of the fact that he hadn’t been able to attend his brother’s funeral, because of his condition. Not that it mattered, Ray tried to joke. Couldn’t see the poor bugger anyway, with the closed casket and all. Shit, he must’ve been a mess, Ray had said, and swigged more rum.
But Josh just nodded, and took the flask, and puffed on his smoke. He hadn’t talked about Pauly since the accident, and Ray figured he wasn’t going to start now. Nevertheless, had he known better, he probably shouldn’t have started into the discussion about where the soul resides, be it in the heart or the brain. Because since coming so close to dying, Joshua had started to see the world far more literally. Ideas were no longer so ephemeral for this ideasmith. He felt a need to witness things in concrete form.
Joshua had seen the blank wall of death.
There had been no souls there to speak of. All he remembered was the falling sensation, the dull roar in his ears of the chainsaw and his raging pulse as blood spilled down his neck, sinking him into oblivion. Then the long, long silence, and the utter loneliness. In the black beyond there was nothing, no great hereafter, no angels or devils, no flames or willing virgins. It was all a lie.
He tried to explain this to Ray, who had not reached this place of understanding. Ray was still the same Ray he had always been. Joshua had seen the truth and, try as he might, he could not convince Ray of it. Ray had his own ideas. At the time, Joshua had rationalized that there was only one way to prove to Ray that there was no soul in his heart. They had struggled, but Joshua had always been stronger. Even after all these months laid up, weeks of atrophy and hospital food and rehab, Joshua was strong.
A combination of pocketknife and river rock served him as surgical tools. Once he had shown Ray, through his screams, that his heart was simply a hunk of meat pushing blood around his veins, he had moved on to checking inside Ray’s skull for any evidence of the elusive anthropomorphism there. By that time, Ray had both ceased to disagree and ceased to scream, and Joshua, wiping his hands of the resultant muck, was quite satisfied that he had made his point.
He remembered the smells of viscera and the flailing lights as he sat back down beside his friend and lit another cigarette. He knew that he was guilty, and they would prove it this time, but it couldn’t be helped. Guilt, it would appear, was the price one paid for seeking the truth. And when the truth he had seen was that there was no soul lurking in men’s hearts, nor in their minds, and no mellifluous afterlife of one’s own concoction waiting beyond the veil of death, then what could guilt really be but something manufactured to keep people from acting up?
And so maybe the boyish tussle with the chainsaw hadn’t been an accident, after all. Maybe it had simply been Josh’s first step on the path to greater knowledge, to those secrets that the universe keeps from us, the awful truth that there are no secrets, no mysteries. That everything is truly as dark and empty as the voids between the stars, the inky pools of the eyes, the shadows within the skull where the sun might never touch. It was a sad and reassuring thought, and Josh smiled to himself through a cloud of dope smoke as booted feet hammered down the riverbank towards him, amidst the spinning lights flaring blood-red in the dark and the hollering of sirens.
At least he knew that he wouldn’t meet Ray in hell one day. Because there was no hell, he was certain, and that made Josh very happy indeed.
Dan Rabarts has been writing since he was big enough to hide a torch under the blankets at night and scribble stories in the back of his maths homework book. Because who needs maths, right?
His horror and dark fantasy short stories can be found in Midnight Echo, Aurealis, and in the anthologies Bloodstones and Regeneration, among many others.
He co-edited Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror (Paper Road Press, 2013), a chilling anthology of flash-length horror tales, with all proceeds being donated to the Duffy Books in Homes literary charity.
Find out more at dan.rabarts.com.