by Adam Peterson
He knows too much.
His own life, specifically, and not the details of it, only the terrible fact of it laid out for him always. There’s this meter—little red hearts all in a row like an elementary school classroom on Valentine’s Day—and he does not know how he knows about hearts or Valentine’s Day or elementary school. He never went, he’s pretty sure. He simply started. Here, in this square by the bush and the cave with a path in every direction. He opened his eyes; he let the game begin again.
He knows too little.
He knows nothing.
They probably taught math in elementary school, and it’s odd that he knows what math is, but not how to do it, now how to take a number and…sex?…it with another to produce yet another. It must be important. Lots of things must be important. Possibly that cave, but he’s not going back there where an old man waited by a dying fire, held out a sword, said, You’ll need this to rescue the princess from another castle.
This is when things started to come back, or rather not things but the absence of things, the black ash between embers. He knows too much about the absence of things. He remembered a castle not heavy with princess but the absence of princess. He wanted to ask the old man if this was the same princess, the same castle or another castle. But there was the beautiful sword he wanted but could not let himself take. The memory of something that hasn’t happened yet chased him out of the cave and back to here.
Now the dark hole of it is—another absence—haunts him and the man isn’t coming out and the bush doesn’t have any secrets and there’s no wind and is wind math?
He knows this: there are bushes and an old man and a sword and a princess and a castle. No, there’s another castle. Plural. He knows plural. Good. There is also him which he thinks must be same as the hearts. He is hearts.
They are there, red, spaced like a royal flush triumphantly slapped on green felt.
Maybe that means he’s winning. He wants to ask the bush what winning means—he’s pretty sure he’s more familiar with the other thing—but the bush doesn’t know shit and he’s not going to ask the old man with all his creepy creepiness. He just has to think. Or maybe he’s got this all wrong and…wait, what the hell is a royal flush?
He’s going to stay here until he figures this out. Who is the princess? Does he love the princess? Or was he in love with the princess before but then he lost her? Has he died? Why does it feel like he’s starting over on the same quest?
That doesn’t matter, not when the important thing is that he’s alive, even if kind of pathetically. Stilly. Alonely—well, except for his best friend, the bush.
Loneliness is not needing math.
He knows the only number he needs. He knows one.
It’s been days, he’s pretty sure. Maybe a week. A month. Maybe only one of those curly numbers of minutes. But he’s terrified by the vague idea that he should be moving on, forgetting about the castles, the princess, maybe reconsidering law school. But he doesn’t know what law school is or if they’d need him to have gone to elementary school. The hearts don’t help. He tries to math them but they are still the number they are. More than two. Two is math! That’s good, that’s good. Or bad. It feels bad.
The bush isn’t saying anything, but if it were, it would be, You can know all of the numbers, but the important thing is you only need the one.
He’s starting not to like the smug bush.
Him, bush, old man. That’s three. Three! And is the old man ever going to come out of the cave? Is the cave law school? Will that make his parents happy? Will the princess come to him then? If he can get her a castle with a bigger television?
He wonders if he should miss his parents. He wants to know they’re out there somewhere. That his father knows he’s disappointing him.
Maybe his father has more hearts. Maybe he’s got a whole long line of them like stickers at a blood drive.
Okay, that doesn’t even make fucking sense. He’s pretty sure of that though he’s not going to ask that lazy bush. He’s not going to follow any of the paths. He’s not going to do anything at all.
One is blood drive.
One is blood.
One is being afraid of swords and wanting swords.
There is the old man, the bushes, the sense that he probably should go somewhere out of the vague fear of monsters or loitering laws or running into the princess when she comes to see the bush and him being all O hey sure how are no I’m good really bye well bye but bye.
He needs a plan.
Plan 1: Castles. Save the princess. Think about taking the sword but maybe just, like, avoid the old man and find a rock to throw, too. Most importantly, rescue the princess, show her the hearts, live in the castle. Big televisions.
Plan 2: Hide in the bush.
Plan 3: Law school—but you know if you don’t really want to you probably shouldn’t go because it’s not like it’s a guaranteed job anymore, and you meet a lot of people who went and are surprised when they have to be lawyers afterward which sounds like it would solve things, but you’re still you, will always be you, and….
Plan ?: Sword.
Plan ?: Calm down. Wait it out. Take stock.
He’s only got hearts, there like the window of a bar and grill during a fundraiser for Heart Disease.
Now this is just getting obscure.
And if he could tell the princess one thing, it would be, The only thing I hate more than this bush is these hearts.
He can’t picture her just like he can’t picture sitting in a bar and grill choosing between the Honey Hot Ribs and Signature Sizzlin’ Fajitas. He can’t think of those things at all, doesn’t know how he knows he doesn’t know how he knows. Explodin’ Onion. No, that’s not right either, but he feels like maybe he could go take the princess for one anyway. When the time comes. After the monsters are dead. After the love returns. Like maybe they used to do before someone locked her in a castle or she left to lock herself in a castle.
You’ll see, bush, he says. Or thinks he does until he realized he hadn’t made a sound. He tries again, needs to hear himself.
We’d like to start with the Nagasaki Nachos.
Please don’t leave. I’ll give you all the hearts.
Nothing. He is bush. This is going to be a problem. No sound. Nowhere to go. Well, he could take one of the paths, but they could go anywhere.
Actually, that’s not true; they could go four places.
Four! He mathed! Of course there’s a four. It’s so obvious now.
He would yell, In your bush-face, bush! but, you know, the interminable silence of the one. The bush is frozen with awe anyway, and probably that old man, too.
If he could tell the princess one thing, it would be, [silence].
Maybe he could practice talking with the old man though he really only seemed interested in swords. Digging deeper might only produce worse topics. Taxidermy. Monster trucks. The Flat Tax.
Still, he thinks if he could talk with the man, he would. He would say, Who am I? Am I Tom? Rufus? Steven?
And the old man would say, You’ll need this to rescue the princess from another castle.
But what if she wants to be in the castle, and I show up and she’s like what are you doing here, and I have to follow my tears back, and the monsters are mad because I hit them with rocks?
You’ll need this to rescue the princess from another castle.
Maybe we once had our own castle. Maybe we once went to the farmer’s market and then that fancy store in the mall. Maybe our place was full of expensive colanders and dying herbs. It was. I know this. I do. We were a number. We were two.
You’ll need this to rescue the princess from another castle.
I can’t take your sword.
You’ll need this to rescue the princess from another castle.
I shouldn’t take your sword.
I won’t take your sword.
I won’t. I only have five hearts.
There like a shelf lined with cans of low-sodium soup.
But he is not going back into the cave to see if the fire has died or if the old man still wants him to take something he will not let himself take.
He’s not sure if he stays because he’s a coward or a hero.
The bush doesn’t have any answers.
There is no wind.
What is the princess doing now? She’s in a castle, somewhere far enough away that he needs protection to cross that distance. And he might have died trying to cross that distance before. Opened his eyes by a bush with everything gone. Or maybe he made it, but she sent him right back.
But his hearts, he’s still got them. The closing of a middle schooler’s love note.
For some reason, he still knows middle school. He learned nothing. He learned everything he needed to know.
The princess is probably watering her thriving herb garden. She is probably humming a song the way she did. He knows she would mumble most of the words but then say the important ones clearly.
He can’t save her from her bad habits.
Hum, he’ll try that.
He can’t save himself from the things he can’t do.
The worst of it is that there are things he feels so much more strongly now than when he knew them. What does that mean, bush? What’s that say about him and why doesn’t it seem to matter that he knows exactly how much life he has and what he wants to do with it?
This is pathetic.
He is pretty sure he knows this is pathetic. His father, whoever that is, would tell him to go get that sword, charge into any of the paths because the most important thing is not the direction but the charging.
Not the rescue but the adventure.
Not the princes but a princess.
His father, he realizes, had pretty hetero-normative views.
I could maybe love a bush, he tries to say then tries to brush the back of his hand on the bush but the bush is thorny and now the back of his hand is bleeding and that’s not the beginning of love.
Would things be different if he had six hearts?
She’s probably looking out a window at the sky, the same sky he’s looking at, and that’s beautiful because it means that they share that one thing and that she’s not with Jeff.
The old man—Jeff?—is probably poking at the fire with the sword, watching the tip of it grow so hot it changes color and thinking about what it would feel like to put it on his skin, to brand himself with the sharp point of it and feel his skin burn and smoke and come away with a cool scar that princesses would like.
Because that old man and his sword were weird as fuck.
Also, because there aren’t any wars any more. Just a bunch of neighborhood eateries that once you’ve tried them all you try them again, first alone then together then alone again.
Well, there are the monsters, but there are also the rocks.
It may be that the world has never made sense. Maybe this is what they were teaching in middle school when all he could do was study the ghost of Allison Mackie’s bra strap and ache with the certainty of how happy he’d be once he knew all the things.
Seventh grade and what a stupid number.
Eighth grade, too, when he made out with Allison Mackie behind the school while boys who used to be friends punched each other in the gravel. When it was over—the fight, the love—he held her hand on the walk home and told her a story he’d heard about how last year a kid brought a knife to a fight and the other boy stabbed him with it. He thought she’d want to know about a pain greater than what he was about to do to her when he told her goodbye but no, like, really goodbye forever. That would hurt but that was not blood drawn with one’s own knife.
Maybe it wasn’t any better when he could actually talk.
He should have said, Want to go try the salad barganza at that new place?
He doesn’t remember there being any monsters around, but he does remember running home anyway.
Now he won’t run anywhere. There are only the paths—four—and his hearts—five—and the bush—one—and the cave—one—and him—one—
In the first year of law school, they tell you to look to your left, look to your right, one of the three of you is going to fail. Or something like that. Maybe they saw it together, him and the princess, in a movie. The important thing is that there are all those people who just own the LSAT Books and it’s like who the hell thinks about their failure?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that nobody is coming for him and that maybe he’s been waiting for this all along. Not the princess, not the old man, not his parents. He only has the bush which is sort of lording its more perfect stillness over him truth be told.
The bush, [silence].
The truth of it is, he would like to lose his numbers. It’s not that he doesn’t want to know there’s a nine—!—but that it’s terrible knowing there’s more than one. Each two hurts, and it must go on like that, the precarious judgment of the highest number you know and how it will all fall down like so many stacked books waiting to be packed away for another castle.
Five red hearts. Like a grocery store balloon display for forgetful spouses.
He’s so tired of figuring out which memories to keep and which to forget. He only wants to have someone find him by the bush and say, Hey, it’s Margarita Mondays down path two and also I love you unconditionally forever. and it might not even matter if it’s the old man as long as he doesn’t bring the sword.
There’s this sense he once had about the end of things. That when you complete the quest it doesn’t keep going. That it ends when you find the princess.
He knows too much about how he’s wrong.
So this is how it must be. He will choose a path. He will charge down it, and when he meets whatever is there he will realize he should have brought the sword no matter how much he can’t be trusted with the sword. He’d only lose it somewhere dear. He’d only offer it to the monsters and say, I’m trying to be a good person.
Or that’s what he’d mean to say. He can’t say anything at all.
Wounded, his only hope will be to retreat to here, to the bush, to where he began, to find himself with enough heart left to wait for someone, anyone to come because he knows who won’t. So let it happen.
Adam Peterson is the co-editor of The Cupboard, and the author of The Flasher and My Untimely Death. His fiction can be found in Indiana Review, The Normal School, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.