The hole was covered by a large and somewhat thick piece of styrofoam, like those used to protect electronics, that had gone yellow from the sun and was beginning to disintegrate. He had not come out for a very long time and, as such, was unaware of the state of its decay. The hole itself seemed to be somewhat decomposed, and—if it were possible—even smaller than when he had entered. But that was not surprising, for it had been so long since he had even strayed above to assure himself it was still intact.
It was when he saw that the last of his oranges had gone moldy that he grew fed up and decided to leave. How he had even lasted as long as he had was somewhat of a miracle. The days had been tedium upon tedium, with little to do but wait and nothing really to wait for. Long ago he had said there would be a sign, a signal, that would call him forth, but he had since forgotten what it was.
The moldy oranges—though they had begun to taste bitter long before—were sign enough, he determined. Time enough had been spent here, time enough indeed. The world beckoned him.
Shaking himself from immobility, and feeling the groan of his muscles and bones as they were forced into action, he crawled up the rickety ladder. It was slow, laborious going, his light from below soon vanishing as he ascended, leaving him in darkness. Each shake of the ladder as he moved up another rung sent a shower of dirt and leaves tumbling from above, hinting that perhaps all was not well there. The smell of fresh air still reached him though, and that suggested that something of the hole still remained.
He was forced to brush a large number of thick spider webs away as he came nearer to the entrance, leaving him unsure as to why he had not been visited by the thousands of creatures the webs seemed to herald. Perhaps he had and he had simply forgotten. There were so many things that had drifted from his thoughts in the time he had spent below.
The smell of fresh air and damp earth seemed to grow stronger as he went, giving him a burst of energy that made him redouble his efforts on the ladder. He moved so quickly he nearly missed a step and had to cling tight to the ladder lest he tumble below. There would be no surviving that fall, he realized. He as no longer so young that he could trust his reflexes to save him.
At last he came to the pinnacle of his burrow and pushed the styrofoam aside, immediately blinding himself as the sunlight cascaded into the darkness. He leaned against the ladder, somewhat groggily for a time, his gnarled and coarse hands grasping its rough edges tightly, while his eyes gradually found their way in the world again. The first thing he distinguished was the house, a large and blurry form, and then the barren garden, from whose bowels he was emerging.
When he regained his eyesight he made his slow way out of the garden and down to the street corner. He was tired by then and had to sit on the sidewalk, with his feet resting on the pavement and his knees waving back and forth. His throat was very dry and he wondered where he might get some water. He was unsure where to look. It had been so long and the world was very different now. He did not even know who to ask or how.
That was when he was first noticed, with his head hangdog, staring at his ridiculous shoes. Most people took him in with a quick glance and a quizzical expression, perhaps a muttered question to a companion. Rumors began to spread and a local television crew arrived on the scene, looking bored and somewhat perturbed at the interruption to their schedule. They set up their camera and stood watching, waiting for the man to do something.
The camera crew’s presence drew others who wanted to see what was happening. Most took a quick look and, seeing nothing of interest, moved on, but a few stayed, convinced that the man must soon do something. A lively discussion began amongst those gathered about the strangeness of it all. Many said this couldn’t possibly be him, they had seen him at some time or another in a distant mausoleum, embalmed and on display.
“Why has he returned?” someone said at last.
There was a heavy silence following this question, until the woman who had spoken added, “I mean it must be for some reason, right?”
Murmurs of discussion followed, no one summoning the bravery needed to step forward and confront the man, who had now risen to his feet and taken a few unsteady steps. He turned, noticing at last the crowd assembled before him, and studied them with his unreadable eyes, a small grin—or perhaps it was a grimace?—marking his lips. That finished, he turned and made his way out beyond the city and into the desert.