Moving into my new residence took a remarkably short period – my needs were few, my possession crammed in the back of my '68 Volkswagen Beetle. A duffel bag contained my wardrobe in its entirety, consisting of faded denim jeans, t-shirts, and sweaters. I'd never been particularly fashion conscious and this lack of awareness had increased exponentially in recent months; to the point where I threw on clothes each day with little regard for what I was wearing. I hadn't glanced at a mirror for months – I didn't care what I looked like or how other people perceived me.
A second bag contained my meager linen supplies; a couple of tea towels, two bath towels, a mat for the bathroom floor. There were no sheets, my only bedding requirements being a sleeping bag and a pillow. I never slept a lot anyway.
One box was unpacked in the kitchen - containing a saucepan, a frying pan, and a battered old kettle. My eating utensils – a fork, a spoon, and a knife. And of course, a can opener. My meals consisted mainly of cans, which could be opened, thrown into a saucepan, and heated. I owned one plate, one bowl and a mug. There'd never been a need for more than that in my travels, as I didn't entertain and never invited visitors to my latest residence.
My bedroom took minutes to arrange – by the time I'd assembled the camp stretcher, thrown a sleeping bag and pillow on top of it, and tipped the empty box from the kitchen upside down to perform as a bedside table, I was done. My favorite books – Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre and a compendium of William Shakespeare – were placed on top of the box for the nights when sleep too often eluded me.
In the living room, I unpacked my most treasured possessions – a foldable easel, tubes of paint in many colors, a palette, and my brushes – all the assorted paraphernalia I needed to earn a small income. Later in the week, I would locate the nearest Goodwill and find a cheap armchair to complete my furnishings.
Once I'd finished unpacking and arranging the little cottage, I stood back to admire my handiwork, satisfied that everything had a place. Not that there was a lot of room, the cottage consisted of one miniscule bedroom, a tiny living area, a small kitchen and a bathroom. The inside was reasonably clean, the outside remarkably overgrown. Located on the outskirts of Puckhaber Falls, the cottage stood at the northernmost end of town, located off the Interstate and hidden down a short gravel drive. There were three quarters of a mile between the nearest neighbor and myself – exactly the way I liked it. Alone was my preferred place to be. My last stop had been in North Dakota and I'd stayed three months, in another small town. I'd stayed until the locals got too friendly – when people began to know my name, it was time to get out of Dodge.
The goodbyes were always the same – people who considered themselves my friends, waving farewell. I went through the motions each time, saying and doing all the right things, to let them believe I was sorry to be leaving. It was a lie. The only emotion I felt as I promised to write, or email or telephone was relief. Relief to be escaping sentiments I was no longer capable of feeling.
I was drawn to the peace and quiet of small towns, the isolation helped me to stay aloof, and I preferred the ambiance. I would invariably do as I'd done here in Puckhaber Falls – drive into town, locate a realtor, lease something small and out of the way. I didn't want neighbors, didn't need people peeking at me from across the road, or trying to strike up a conversation by the mailbox. I didn't want people to know me. I would only lease something if I could take it on a monthly basis, avoiding any long-term commitment. In the back of my mind, was the conviction that I wouldn't be on this earth long, and why complicate matters by letting a realtor think she had a long-term tenant? I preferred a four-week window of opportunity to escape, should my plans to depart this life not come to fruition as soon as I would like.
I avoided friendliness, couldn't permit people to know my inner character. The outer shell of my psyche remained firm, castle walls, and battalions holding strong against the possibility of a breach. Behind the castle walls was somewhere no one was allowed to go. How could I allow it? Behind my strong borders was a tumult of ferocious emotions, flowing like a vortex around my crushed heart. Nobody was allowed to see behind the walls to discover the inner agony. I couldn't allow anyone in, would not consider loving someone, caring for anyone. I had no heart left to care. My heart had been destroyed two years ago and now I wandered the country, a fragile shell of humanity, looking for a way to end my life.
I prepared dinner – a can of beef ravioli, heated on the dilapidated stove, which was probably older than I was. My needs in the last months of my life were simple, although I did use manners and tipped the saucepan's contents into a bowl, before perching on the porch steps outside to eat. I reminded myself to do something about a chair.
Darkness was already falling in this northern area, assisted by the canopy of ancient trees surrounding my new home, which cast deep shadows around the cottage. The porch light wasn't working, but a cheery pool of light flowed from inside, allowing me to see my meal.
Tomorrow I would go into town, pick up some supplies, and approach the small craft stores to see if they'd be willing to sell my paintings. This had been my approach in numerous moves over the past two years, usually affording a small income to supplement the meager funds in my bank account. If things appeared promising, I'd find that Goodwill and buy an armchair. If things didn't seem promising, there was always the little porch to sit on, until I figured something out. My grandmother used to say something would turn up when you least expected it and I heard her voice, using the idiom I'd heard repeatedly before she died. For a split second, I dwelled on the memory, then pushed it back into the tidy box where I stored things I didn't want to think about.
A deep sigh escaped my lips as the last light disappeared on the horizon. It was peaceful and as the darkness deepened, sounds from the forest caught my attention. Small animals had crept from their daylight hiding places to forage and a wolf bayed in the velvety night. The air was heavy with the scent of pine and the musty, rich scent of damp earth.
It was so quiet; I could hear the gentle splash of water from a river nearby. I wondered idly if this was the water source, leading to the falls for which the town had presumably been named. The forest seemed the ideal place to hike, somewhere to go and think in peace. As peaceful as my chaotic mind ever allowed, at least.
I stood up and yawned before walking inside, letting the screen door bang behind me. It had been a long day and I hoped the extreme tiredness consuming me was a promising sign. I'd fought insomnia for so long now, exhaustion had become second nature; but I hoped the long drive from North Dakota might aid in achieving at least a couple of hours of unbroken sleep.
I washed up the dishes, brushed my teeth, and slipped into the cold sleeping bag, rubbing my feet back and forth to create a warm patch. For a long time I lay curled on my side, listening to the strange sounds from the forest outside and trying to distinguish one creature from another. I heard a wolf again, and then a second, and it seemed they were calling to each other across the darkened forest, seeking one another in the inky blackness.
Close to the window came scuffling sounds, as though some woodland inhabitant was investigating my arrival. I wondered what it was. Perhaps a squirrel or a skunk. Whichever it turned out to be didn't matter; I had no fear of the forest or what lay within its boundaries. I was happy to share my world with the animals. They asked no questions, sought no responses, and didn't give a damn for what I was thinking.
When I eventually fell into a restless sleep, my nightmares were filled with memories that could be suppressed during the day, but not in the long hours of night.