There it is again, it’s the strangest feeling, like I’ve seen that before in a past life. Those beady eyes. The very angles of its pricked fur. The stripes on the raccoon’s tail, each the same width as it was last time. Last time? What last time?
I step closer to the window until cold bleeds through the glass against my nose. Were it not for the floodlight he would be invisible, a creature of the night, just part of the woods behind him like a tuft of tall grass. Statuesque, he stares at me.
I step backward then sideways around the recliner, monitoring him as long as I can. Though his presence stirs distress in me, the thought of him scurrying away is worse. With a final sidestep he is out of eyeshot. I lunge to the door. My hand fumbles on the knob. Its motion is limited. The chilled metal nips my fingertips as they pinch the lock and rotate.
I whip open the door expecting to see an empty yard, limp grass leading to the forest behind, but there he stands. I’m not sure what he represents. Like an ancient king, untouchable by all. One thing is certain. He has never known fear.
The breeze slides through my sleeves and up the bottom of my white t-shirt raising bumps up my sides and the nape of my neck. I know him, but it’s not just him – I know this. I know what’s about to happen.
But I don’t.
I’m not sure how much time passes, he and I in this stalemate. Dead leaves rustle above him and fall when the wind breaks their grip from the trees.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“You,” he answers, though I know he doesn’t speak.
“Go,” I say. “Shoo. What’s your problem?”
I’d throw something at him, but what’s the use? A bullet could graze his ear, I bet he still wouldn’t move.
I slam the door and walk to the bedroom, resisting the urge to stomp, resisting the urge to watch over my shoulder as I pass the window. There is nothing to see. I know he’s still there.
I grit my teeth in bed. I feel the vibration in my jaw, hear the squeaking of enamel on enamel.
* * *
It’s dark. I see nothing ahead, above, or around, it’s just dark. I think I’m walking, but the sensation of working muscles is absent. The pendulums pivoting from my hips carry no weight.
As my eyes adjust to this void, I notice a gray upside-down triangle bouncing ahead of me. It sweeps side to side, up and down. Like a swinging gold watch, it steals my thoughts. “You’re getting very sleepy,” I hear something say.
Somewhere behind me a ball of light is expanding, and its white blanket is sliding across the ground. It reaches the triangle. Gray, dark brown, gray, dark brown, fuzzy rings extend from the triangle into the haunches of the coon. Its whiskers flash in the light as it turns to eye me over its shoulder, still walking. Forever taunting me, he’s been doing this for centuries. I try to sprint. I should lunge at it, smother it, snap its neck. End this thing once and for all. But I can’t control my speed. I fear I’m his to manipulate.
Sky blue flashes to my left from a window cut into a log wall. Beneath it a man lies in bed. Minty vapors of tea waft toward me. Sweat darkens the man’s linen shirt around the armpits and in spots across his torso. A woman in a cornflower dress and a bonnet lifts a rag from his forehead. When she plunges it into a wooden bucket I hear the slosh of water. She rings out the excess, drapes open the rag, folds it once, and replaces it on his forehead. She strokes his hair. He twitches. Somehow I know I love this woman. Somehow I know this man.
“What do we do, doctor?” she asks a man in the corner with tan pants and a black petticoat. “It’s getting worse. Ever since that raccoon bit him.”
I vomit, wait no, the man in the bed vomits.
The raccoon still struts in front of me. He takes a sharp turn. His lips spread to expose his fangs. Thin ivory slivers stab from both jaws. Dark circles wrap around his eyes. I think maybe I shouldn’t be following him, but that is not my choice to make. Instead I cut the corner of the ninety-degree angle he made and shorten the distance between us. He looks forward again and maintains his parade. I can almost reach out and snag his tail, but I don’t want to.
Trees burst from the ground. The sun bleeds in from above me, but it doesn’t warm my face. As I step around pine cones, auburn evergreen needles crunch beneath me. Their aroma, normally clean and pleasant, seems wrong.
A boy kneels on the ground with a small shovel. He takes a final dig at a narrow hole and pours the dirt onto a mound beside his shoe. A man knelt across from him says, “That’s perfect, son. Now we’ll put this piece of metal at the bottom, and we’ll fix these railroad spikes in place so the raccoon has just enough room to fit his arm in there.”
“If there’s enough room for his arm then how does it trap him?” the boy asks.
“Raccoons like shiny things. He’ll try to grab the metal, and the muscles in his arm will bulge enough to squeeze against the spikes. Coons are so greedy they won’t let go. He’ll keep trying to pull it out, and the spikes will dig into his arm. Then he’ll be trapped. When we come back he’ll still be here holding this metal.”
“That’s foolish,” the boy says.
“Yes, it is. That’s a lesson for you. Greed is the devil.”
Somehow I know I love this boy. Somehow I know this man. Somehow I know this isn’t the first time I’ve seen the grizzly bear that is stalking up from behind them.
I can’t watch what’s next. I look to the raccoon instead, but he is gone. The sun fades, and again this strange world is devoid of everything. I stop, searching for an answer. Stars begin to freckle the sky. The wind whistles an eerie tune into my ear. I open my eyes. I must have been sleepwalking again. Leaves glide and tumble through the air. The corner of one pokes my cheek and tailspins away, down, down, into the gorge that drops at my toes.
Behind me, an animal’s shrill cackle. I flinch, and my foot slides across the dirt. I thrust my arms to grab anything, but my body is already spinning away, falling. My breath yanks inward. My innards jam against my heart and seize it. Gravity throws me at the ragged ground below while the raccoon watches from the edge.