Holes The Body Leaves Behind

Edited by Kate Dollarhyde

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

September 2020

941 words — Reading time: around 4 minutes

Listen to this story, narrated by Hollis Beck:

I was not surprised when the roads I’d yo-yo’d over all these years ripped themselves clean of the earth, knotted themselves into the rough shape of a body, and began destroying the city of my birth. Its flesh was pothole-pitted and sashed with guardrails.

Safe in the suburbs, I sat in the snow outside my house, wrapped in double-layered clothing and a mummy bag, drinking cocoa, watching — the dark bulk on the skyline an answer to the skyscrapers shining through the mist. I had heard of these Colossuses in faraway places: giants made of train cars, or sawdust, or oil derricks, bound to some destructive will. I’d read of survivors who dreamed up ways to fight back, to reclaim the homes they’d lost until, day by day, their old lives faded.

People left a wending web of foot trails through the snow as they fled — their usual highways and back roads now animate. The Colossus crushed buses and hot dog carts beneath its asphalt feet.

A neighbor came over, clouds of breath punctuating the air, and he crouched beside me as he said, “Some of us are going to try to make it out of town.”

I sipped my cocoa and saluted. “Godspeed.”

“You should come.”

I smiled. The number of times I’d heard that. We’re getting drinks. I’m having a barbecue. We’re going hiking. Always, “You should come.” Letting that word take its own weight, unjustified. The same meaningless authority when I tell students, “You should be reading.”

Most of these I declined. Mostly I drove. I had no interest in being anything but alone. Every weekend, every break, I went as far from the city as I could — following those same winding black ribbons of road that were now ripping gargoyles from an office building and tossing them into the river.

Driving alone to see a solar eclipse when I was twenty-four, I had discovered that the roads all connected. One could go anywhere. Why stay put?

“Listen,” the neighbor said. “Who knows what that thing wants. Where it’ll go.” He whispered, afraid the monster would hear his tiny, human voice.

Then again, why come back? Every day I longed to get the hell away from the middle school, from the dusty library shelves packed with paperback tales of meaningless adventure. The building full of bodies. The smells of floor polish, rubber, and fear that dragged me into the past.

(The memory of my grandmother measuring my clothes, my body. My grandfather hissing when I spoke to boys, spraying my face with a squirt bottle like an untamed cat. On Sundays, they locked all the doors and we subsisted on boiled ham and prayer. They shouted at one another in the dead of night, as if they thought darkness dulled the sound: “I hope you die!” “I hope we both die!” I hid beneath the covers of my bed come morning — so flat and still that I could not be seen.)

In other places, those flat plains and scrubby foothills, I could see the roundness of the Earth. Almost feel it turning. I could disappear into the allness of it. Like the eclipse, these moments proved that anything, no matter how familiar, might disappear.

(My parents were smells of warm laundry, tobacco, and rot. My parents were a story I used to tell. They lived in the sudden happiness I felt around the public pool, the skate rink, certain parks. Places they’d taken me at some time long forgotten.)

A miracle — or its opposite — that I had not kept going. Roared over the buckled face of the world and into the ocean. Grown gills and dove so far down that if I ever returned to the surface, I’d burst.

As I got older, I couldn’t hide so easily in my bed; but in the blight of northeastern winter, anyone could be alone outside. All sound swallowed in the softness of snow. All light reflected.

Which parts of the Colossus had those streets I’d traveled become? Was its heart my dawn-traveled highways? Did its blunt fists hold my blood and shredded knee, those streets that taught me at eleven that flesh and gravity could conspire toward hurt? Was its face the boulevards I’d stumbled over, sixteen and drunk and screaming with joy because I knew I could leave and never come back?

Did those memories exist, now, in its destroying body? Or were they in the ragged road-shaped valleys where asphalt had long lived?

“No one ever thinks it’ll come for them,” the neighbor said. He looked back at his house. His husband was in the window, holding their small daughter by her shoulders.

It’s this view I consider when I return years later, long after their house and mine are destroyed. I am a tourist to the futile cleaning efforts: the gashes filled with wildflowers and parkways. Amalgamated rubble in monuments to disaster. I leave my car where the road ends, the ragged seam where this blind force ripped free. And I wonder what it was like for that girl to leave the only home she’d known, to forget a place before she began to hate it. What it must be like to be carried away by someone you love. How every step you take, the air heals behind you. How far away was the sound of things falling apart, and how warm I was as my cocoa cooled.

Was it easier to leave knowing the roads might chase after, might carry me back? Or is that only an idea found in distance, something to fill the gaps between here and there?

© 2020 Jeremy Packert Burke

About the author

Jeremy Packert Burke is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, and has had stories in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Quarterly West, Puerto del Sol, Third Coast Magazine, and other places.