A short anthology surrounding an apparently discarded, unopened, can of kombucha.
by Gabriel Merithew
As the sun sank behind the hills, a cold breath of wind tickled Kent’s neck and made the hair on the back of his black lab stand up straight, making the dog look like he had a horse’s mane. They plodded along, Kent’s mind on the gravestone down the street from his house that bore his wife’s name. He wondered if it was time to give up the house and move. It was too big for him and his dog, and cost a fortune to heat. He’d started wearing the same down jacket around the house that he wore now. He pulled it closer around him, and called for Harry to heel. The excitable Harry stopped pulling at the leash and obeyed, looking back at Kent with a tongue-out smile.
“Do you miss your mom?” Kent asked his dog in a gruff voice, like rocks rubbed together underwater.
Harry responded by lifting his leg against a shrub, and Kent did his best to not think about his wife and admire the view he’d been awaiting eagerly all day. But by the time they wound around another hill, Kent’s eyes weren’t on the sharp rock crags above, still clinging to the last of the sun’s rays. They were on his boots.
The walk was ruined. Maybe Harry didn’t mind that she wasn’t there with them, but he did. Barely paying attention to where he was stepping, he nearly trod on a drink’s can laying in the middle of the path. He stopped. Harry sniffed it with interest.
“Probably fell out of someone’s pack.” Kent bent down and picked it up. “Yep, not even opened. You like kombucha, Harr?”
Harry panted noisily by way of a reply and made to grab it from his master’s hand. Kent pulled it away.
“Wish it was a beer though…” Kent said as he cracked it open and took a sip. “Wild kombucha. This must be where it grows.” He smiled at his little joke. “Not bad. Walk on, Harr.”
Kent slowed their pace as he drank the lost and found beverage. As he drank, he wondered if the universe was trying to tell him something. He’d left his water bottle in the car, and had literally stumbled across a replacement.
He took the last sip as they reached their turnaround point. Harry obeyed reluctantly when Kent told him it was time to head back. He slipped the can in his coat pocket, so as not to litter, but took it out again and peered at it curiously.
“What do you think, Harr? A little bird feeder,” He tossed the can into the air and caught it again, turning it over in his hands. “Maybe a… I don’t know. I’m not gonna throw it away though. No way. Maybe I’ll plant it and watch a kombucha tree grow. People will come from miles around to see our kombucha tree… A bird feeder then.” Kent looked inquisitively at his dog. “You know why. You knocked over the last one chasing your ball, fuzzy butt.”
That night, Kent took the empty kombucha can out to the garage and pulled the dangling string, so that a single lightbulb illuminated his workbench. He tinkered away an hour or two there in the freezing garage, wishing he had a real workshop. He didn’t stop until it was to his liking – no sharp edges. His fingers ached with cold by the time he hung his new kombucha-can bird-feeder from it’s pole. He’d put it in the backyard tomorrow. Somewhere close to the window, so he could see the birds. No doubt Harry would like watching the little things flitting around as much as he would.
Harry went back inside and went to bed, unaware that an identical unopened can of kombucha was laying at that very moment, abandoned in the same spot on the trail.
“Does it look weird if we don’t invite him?” Marty threw his arm around Hanna and gave her a little side-hug. “Is it true he threw a paper airplane to you across Mrs. Jennings’ room with a poem inside?”
Hannah grinned jovially and pushed Marty away. “It was actually kind of sweet.”
Directly behind them, Thorn made an obnoxious buzzer sound. “The word we were looking for is ‘queer’. As in, ‘it was actually kind of queer’.”
Hannah and Marty laughed aloud.
“Twenty-fourteen,” Kaly, bringing up the rear of their little hiking convoy, was frowning her disapproval. “That’s where your juvenenial vocabulary belongs.”
Marty turned and started walking backwards so as to face Kaly. He tripped over an unseen obstacle in the trail and fell backwards to the ground. Recovering himself by posing as if he meant to suddenly sit on the cold, rocky ground, he addressed the lot of them. “I’m a man of the people…”
“A little boy of the p…” Hannah interrupted him.
“A man of the people,” Marty interrupted back, correcting her. “And it’s my responsibility as chairman of this ‘kegger’, as our fore-brothers used to call it, to ensure that the greatest number of people are having a good-ass time. If we were to invite Drew, he would skulk in the corner all night, because he chooses not to drink, or converse with his fellow humans. If you guys are looking for a scarecrow to stand disapprovingly in the corner all night, I might as well just invite my dad.”
“Be that as it may,” Kaly began, stepping forward and offering him a hand. “I think you should still invite him.”
Marty ignored Kaly’s outstretched hand and clambered to his feet, grabbing, as he did so, the unopened can that had caused him to trip. He pointed at Kaly with the can. “Because he’ll feel left out if I don’t?”
“Because…” Kaly hesitated.
A moment of silence was punctuated by Thorn, who snatched the can from Marty’s hand and examined it. “Because he’ll probably be your fucking investment banker some day, because guys like that never peak in high school.” Thorn grinned smugly at Marty. “She’s too shy to say it.”
Kaly was busy feigning a cough to cover up a sudden fit of the giggles. Hannah thumped her on the back, grinning.
Marty lunged at Thorn and put him in a headlock before his friend could do anything to resist. “If I’m peaking in high school, I’m taking y’all with me!”
The boys struggled, Marty smirking through gritted teeth, when Hannah prised them apart. “Marty, dear, your little friend is turning purple.”
With one last breath-stealing squeeze, Marty let go of Thorn and put up his hands in a proposed surrender. Thorn lunged back at him, but it was a fake out. The boys faced off for a long moment, panting like baby bulls, until Thorn raised his hand grasping the can in an invitation for Marty to go long.
“Wait, is that beer?” Marty peered at the can.
“Nope, just kombucha.” Thorn wound up. “Doggie wanna play fetch?”
“Don’t patronize me.” Marty took off at high speed up the trail and Thorn chucked the can up to him. Marty caught it spectacularly and took a victory lap around the girls.
Kaly scowled pointedly. Hannah just smiled playfully and shook her head at him. “You’re like a really big toddler.”
Marty tossed her the can and she tossed it to Kaly, who promptly chucked it into the thick underbrush, ignoring the protests from the boys. “I’m you,” She began, pointing at Marty accusatorially and grinning broadly so that her rosy cheeks were on full display in the setting sun. “And that’s Drew, you heartless cretin.”
They all laughed and shortly after, heeded Thorn’s request that they head back, as it was getting late and rather chilly, not only that but he’d forgotten his water bottle back in the car and had to drink from Kaly’s.
The receding laughter and shouts of the hiking double-date were soon swallowed by the lonely mountainside, and the unopened can of kombucha lay forgotten in the shady ravine as another appeared in the middle of the trail.
Dense masses of green leaves filtered the relentless blinding heat of a muggy summer’s day, but despite the shade, Terrance and Sasha were sweating profusely as they marched up the trail.
“He said it was about the last thing he wanted to do. I’m just saying, maybe if he can’t find someone to adopt her, we could take her.” Terrace wiped the sweat from his upper lip on his shirt collar, looking disgruntled.
“Seriously, who the fuck names their dog ‘Kitty’?” Was Sasha’s response. “You can’t rename a dog after however many years. It sets in.” Sasha’s glistening brow was furled, and she glared down at the trail as if the stretch of packed earth and gravel had done her a personal disservice.
“It’s all about repetition. Call a dog a name enough times and it’ll come.” Terrance breathed heavily, picking up his pace until he was alongside his fiancé. “We wouldn’t have to have the dog all the time. My parents could take her if we need to go out of town. You met Kitty, she get’s along great with other dogs.”
Sasha looked over at him, giving him the same look she’d been giving the trail. He recoiled slightly.
“Do we need to decide right now? I just want to get a hike in before Kaitlyn gets here. Is that okay?” Sasha huffed.
Terrance dropped back. “I don’t need an answer, I just wanted to know your thoughts.”
“My thoughts are that if I stop walking, I’ll gag on the stench coming from your armpits.” With a sense of finality in her voice, Sasha picked up the pace and Terrance groaned to himself, glancing down at a drink’s can laying in the middle of the trail. There must be a special place reserved in hell for people who littered, he thought, frowning.
Neither was particularly enjoying the view as they rounded another hill, feeling as though they weren’t hiking at all, and were instead swimming through a huge nature and BO flavored bowl of soup. “Hey, wait a sec.” Terrance halted and pulled off his backpack. “My mouth feels like the Gobi dessert.”
Sasha walked over and stood by as he rifled through the pack. “Mine too. Water, please.”
Terrance’s face fell in disbelief. “You gotta be f… I left the water bottles in the car.”
Letting out a humorless laugh, Sasha patted him on the head and started back down the trail. “If I die from dehydration, please know I hate you.”
“Love you.” Terrance said, spewing the words in her direction as he shouldered his pack. He followed her in silence back down the trail, feeling the sunburn setting into his exposed shoulders and hating the sound of gravel crunching under his boots. It would be a long and miserable three miles back to the car. At one point, he thought about that can in the middle of the trail, and how it might’ve been unopened – he hadn’t checked – but his own self-loathing for disappointing his fiancé, coupled with a bit of loathing for her being disappointed, drove the thought from his mind until later that night. As he lay back against his sweat-soaked pillow, it occurred to him that they might not have been, at that moment, in between bouts of heatstroke-induced vomiting if he’d just checked that random can in the middle of the trail.
If it had been unopened, they could’ve drank it, and his fuck-up wouldn’t have mattered as much.
Nothing wrong with an unopened can.
Unless, of course, it was kombucha… He hated that stuff.