He remembered. A calm, almost calculated sense of satisfaction. It had burned into his stomach, warm and comforting. For the first time in his life, he tasted victory. The victory of a plan executed without flaw. Perfection.
He'd achieved perfection in death.
His life was a mockery of all things worthwhile. Nowhere in life had he even /glimpsed/ the fleeing coat-tails of success. Nowhere in life had he amounted to anymore than an annoyance, disgusting. Unwanted vermin. Spat upon by the hovering bulk of his family, the distaste of his kin, himself.
His own cowardice choked him. Daily. He couldn't breath from it, couldn't inhale, couldn't make it past a single breath, couldn't live. He was disgusting. A pathetic excuse for something that should have been great. Nobility. He was nothing of the sort.
But death. Death was something different. Here, floating in the sweet abyss of death, was success. Victory.
He could taste it in his mouth, was giddy with it. He knew. Knew somehow, despite prior achievement, that the sweet and almost milky flavor on his tongue was one of absolute perfection. A goal achieved.
The darkness buckled. Around the edges, it fuzzed, it became light. Apprehension touched him. He couldn't breathe. His lungs were going to burst. He tasted the air now, tentative, his first breath. He'd denied himself previously, afraid once he tasted this darkness the milk on his tongue would be contaminated. The edges wavered. So.. So.. Bright.
Pain seared against his skull, against his bones. White light, holy and pure light. It blinded him and he fell to a ground that was previously undefined. It was spongy, soft underneath. It gave slightly under him on impact, fluffy and elastic. His throat tore as a strangled yelp emerged. The light. The pain. Oh God. The /pain/. Like teeth tearing his flesh away, yanking it off his body, pulling scraps back until stinging air impacted cold and hard against bone. He choked on his breath. It hurt. Oh God.. /Oh sweet God, save me./
He wavered and roared again. The air all around him was static and burning, electric with disappointment. Pressing in from all sides. Disappointment, disappointment, disappointment. Press, press, press.
It was in his mouth, in his body, in his flesh, in his very bones. The air, the disappointment. His mouth parted in agony as the pain left him blind and the smell of lavender enveloped him. The disappointment took him. It touched him, it was wrong. Pierced what he had achieved. The milk turned sour in his mouth.
Even in death.
Breath in, breath out. Cough, sputter, twitch.
An eye peeled open. Bleary and coated with sleep, it blinked. The stench hit him instantaneously. The smell, the smell that was /him/, his decaying body, his rotting flesh; it was in his nose. He grunted. Good morning.
Dawn was just beginning to tinge the dark sky a smokey pink. Desperately, fleetingly, he wished he could go back to bed. Curl up again, his tail coiling near his nose, maybe, just maybe blocking the smell. He was exhausted.
He'd passed out after three days, the stench finally less unbearable than the groaning demand for rest. He'd slept five hours, his nose revolted and constantly threatening to wake him, twitching as he attempted for steady breathing. His head was thrown as far away from the rest of him as his squat neck would allow. It didn't help much.
Twitch twitch twitch.
By now, both eyes had opened. You didn't get what you wanted just by wishing for it. He was up. Well, sorta.
His body remained slumped on the ground for a few minutes, pressed against the flattened grass in a submissive sort of defeat. He hurt. As always, he hurt. His ribs clawed out at the air, glinting white among the rotting brown and tinged red. The pieces of string and their respective burdens, knotted around the bones with little bows, seemed extra heavy today. Laying as he did, completely on the less damaged side of his body, a few of the dangling strings and their stones had actually had fallen into his ribcage. A few trembled against his innards with each breath. The one that was eggshell blue and smooth as velvet tickled against his heart. He, as best he could, ignored them.
Taking inventory, Admiral stretched each leg, arched his back, turned his neck. Felt the muscles contract and relax, the bones pop in and out of place.
Rising to his feet was an herculean effort. His head seemed magnetically drawn to the ground, drooping and sad as he pushed himself up. Long ears almost touched the grass he was so close.
His head was, in fact, the last thing to be raised- inch by inch he yanked it up by a limp neck, listening to the top of his vertebrae realign and trying not to wince, the cracks sharp and mean in the still morning air. It hurt, as always. A second chance swimming in conditions, in pain. It never stopped hurting.
He turned what should be a broken neck to look back at his body. A survey of his current situation elicited a groan. It seemed a bird had found him in his sleep- A handsome portion of his left hip had been nibbled away, continued where it had already started to tear.
The majority of the dangling stones had fallen out of him as he'd gotten up, now on the outside rather than the in. A few were still tangled however, behind the ribs rather than in front of them. He shook, what was left of his coat rippling in a fleeting state of grace. Each string, no more than four inches long, trembled from the violent agitation. With their one ends knotted around whatever bone was exposed and their other end wrapped sloppily around their stone, Admiral looked like a joke of a canine wind chime.
He shook out his coat again. The last of the straggler stones righted themselves. Clacking against his ribs and hips as he shook, they bounced on their unbreakable strings and then settled on the outside of his ribs. The ones that didn't dangle, that were just knotted directly onto the bones, obviously, did nothing. They were the darker ones. Usually sharp and pointy, black or dirty gray.
The string stones were generally lighter. There was a dusky rose colored one, a bruise yellow, the eggshell blue. Many pearl whites. The softer side of life, the people he'd loved, the soft mistakes he wished he could undo. They seemed hopeful against the rotting flesh. Just a touch of beauty in all that madness.
The dark ones.. Well. Life isn't without its shadows. The obligations, the nasty regrets, the resentments.
...The little girl.
That stone, the biggest of the odd assembly and tied to an upper rib, was a foreboding shade of black. Inky and without any contrast. Never ending, constant, something unchangeable. It was about the size of a child's fist. Ragged and misshapen it seemed to glow with guilt. It often stung, the only stone he could ever actually feel, burrowing its way into the bone as the hatred occasionally flared. Wary, he checked it out. It seemed alright.
He was worried what would happen when it'd burned its way entirely through the bone. Would it elongate as a few others had, pierce into what was left of him, become a new and mismatched rib that he could never get rid of?
Something told him if that happened to this particular message, there would be nothing left for him.
Admiral swallowed and averted his eyes upwards.
The morning sky, now a swollen yellow-blue, offered just the tiniest flair of happiness. It ballooned in his chest almost violently and he inhaled sharp, suddenly elated, breathing hard.
Breathing in life, the life he'd neglected, the life he'd done his best to abandon. His punctured lungs fluttered as he inhaled again, greedy for it now. He couldn't get enough; enough air, enough life, enough of what he'd missed.
White light blinded him. Exalted he should be, thrown up skywards, his rotting limbs swimming in clouds, in sky, in the beautiful blue of a never-ending atmosphere. Instead he was crippled, writhing in the tall grass, howling out in anguish, the white gone and replaced with inky black and flames and burning. Burning all over, burning and consuming, fire on his body, licking his limbs, in his organs, in his eyes, in his soul. Excruciating pain, /get it off, get it out, let me go./
There was no release in pleading. He'd earned his place in this world, his dying body, the constant reminders of what he'd be in store for should he fail to complete what he'd been given.
His throat was tearing. He knew it, it had to be tearing. The howls of despair, complete agony thrown into a voice, had to be tearing out his vocal cords. He had to be finally sinking into the ground, it had to be swallowing him up, he'd failed, he was going, he hadn't looked at that goddamn stone right, it had to be burrowing and making home, ruining everything, eating him alive.
Instantaneous, as quick as it'd started, the pain stopped.
He blinked. He could breath. He was still swathed in the tall grass, alive. Or as alive as he could be anyway.
Was this really a life?