by Brian Eckert
Day One: The Voice in the Box
Richard entered the code on the electronic lock pad. The pad made a series of beeps and the door unlocked.
Richard opened the door and stepped into the cabin that was to be his home for the long weekend.
He flipped on the light and saw an entryway constructed of light-colored wood with cubbies built into the wall. He saw a picture that said, “Teach a man to fish and he’ll spend all day playing with his jig.” There was also a picture of a black Labrador with a duck in its mouth and a taxidermied pheasant mounted on a board.
Richard went upstairs. On the next floor was the kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. Above the fireplace was a series of mounted animal heads — deer, mountain goat, pronghorn, gemsbok.
Richard felt somewhat out of place, as he was not a sportsman. He did not hunt or fish. He could not field dress a wild boar. But he was also not willing to splurge for a “luxury cabin,” so he had chosen the “sportsman” on the rental website. Staring at this barbaric décor was bearable, he supposed, at a savings of $250 per night. If it became too much, he could always burn the goddamned things in the fireplace.
Richard unloaded the car and went out for groceries. When he got back to the house he could not get the door open. He input the code over and over, but the door remained locked.
He looked around for an open window to get in through. There were none. His only neighbor sat on her deck drinking a cup of coffee and reading a magazine. She looked at him like he were an utter moron. Richard gave her an ineffectual shrug. She looked away.
Richard called the real estate office.
“Beau Meyer,” said the man on the other end.
“Hi, Beau. I’m renting 41B. I seem to have locked myself out.”
Ten minutes later Beau Meyer arrived in a blue SUV. He had a large belly and a mountain drawl. He wore flip flops.
“Let’s see here,” drawled Beau Meyer. “These dang things can be finicky.”
Beau Meyer inputted the code and gave the door a shove. Lo and behold, the door opened.
The woman on her porch looked on in amusement. Richard felt defeated. Luckily, he had bought enough booze to drown a moose.
“Enjoy your stay. Don’t hesitate to call if you need anything,” said Beau Meyer, and he flip-flopped back to his car and left.
Richard went inside. He was alone with the dead animals and his feelings of ineptness.
He put the groceries away, unpacked his bags, poured a drink, and checked out the rest of the house.
The place could sleep 12 people, according to the maximum occupancy notice. But Richard had invited no one. He knew guests would just end up squandering his peace and that he’d spend the entire weekend trying to get a moment for himself. People never helped Richard to understand anything. They just confused him.
For Richard, the essence of the unknown was contained in the non-human. Only alone could he plumb the great mysteries.
In each of the rooms was the vestige of an old intercom system. Richard remembered them from his childhood. They allowed the different rooms to “talk” to each other. The intercoms added a vintage feel to the cabin.
Richard pushed the talk button on the intercom in his bedroom and it gave a crackle of life.
“Hello,” said Richard. “Does anybody read me? This is Richard in 41B. I’m going to get very drunk tonight.”
And he did. At one point, he preached ethics to the goat head above the fireplace.
“Universal morality is not the way to go,” he told the goat. “Universal anything makes automatons of men. Things must be done at the individual level, or free will is eliminated.”
Richard touched the goat’s glass eye.
“Damn devil eyes,” he said.
Sometimes, in his solitude, Richard felt ashamed. But he reminded himself that the real shame was in human relations.
Shame was God’s punishments for original sin. Shame made us naked before one another.
Richard thought the moral of the story was that prior to sin, we were allowed our illusions. To have paradise, illusions were necessary. Hell was the absence of all illusions.
He wasn’t ordinarily a smoker, but on a whim he’d purchased a cigar at the local country store. He lit the cigar and sat back puffing away. The thick smoke made him queasy. He went out on the porch for some fresh air.
His neighbor was out for a smoke as well. Richard saw the red dot of her cigarette burning. He considered bidding her a good evening, but thought better of it.
He heard crickets and coyotes yipping off in the distance. The night felt heavy and oppressive. The silence of the place closed in on him, made him claustrophobic.
The cabin was close to where he honeymooned with his ex-wife. He had been in love, once. Or so he thought. But what he loved was an idea of her. She, he rather hated.
Love, Richard found, was not for him. Love, which the moralists proclaimed the highest aim of life. Love, which people said could move mountains. But Richard perceived that what they called love was blind and mechanical; a love borne of obedience; another Thou Shalt: Thou Shalt love; Thou Shalt not hate. As sure of a law as E=mc2.
Richard hated their love. But in his hopelessness was a spark of hope that glowed pure love; that was truer than all the falseness committed in the name of love.
The stars were brilliant. He could see the Milky Way. As a child he spent hours looking up at the stars from his backyard. Back then, the sky was fascinating and full of possibility. He used to look up at the stars and see life. He imagined that the stars were the souls of the departed, entombed in icy, far away silence, smiling down on him.
Now, he saw cold dust and impossible distances. He saw death.
Richard stripped naked and got into bed. As he was drifting off to sleep he heard a crackling sound, like somebody tuning an AM radio. There were voice fragments interspersed with dead air.
He turned on the bedside lamp and sat up. The sound was coming from the intercom box.
Richard had always desired a supernatural encounter, as proof of an otherness. He needed at least one thing in his life that could not be rationally explained. Faced with the paranormal, however, Richard mostly felt inconvenienced.
He approached the box and checked that the buttons were not engaged. None were. He gave the machine a whack.
The voice in the box was starting to aggravate him. Why the fuck hadn’t he chosen the luxury cabin?
He grabbed the fire poker from the living room and began smashing the intercom box. Wood, plastic and plaster rained down on him with each blow. For good measure, he pulled the ruined box from the wall, smashed it against the floor, and ripped the exposed wires from the hole in the wall.
Satisfied, he went to bed.
Day Two: History Lessons
Richard woke up with no idea of the time, but a sense that it was late, since the sun shone brightly through the blinds.
He refused to check the time. For some reason, this seemed important.
He walked down to the country store for a coffee and took a stroll around the lake. A kiosk informed him that the lake had been constructed by the Xterra Energy Corporation at the turn of the century for the purpose of power generation. But for reasons that remained disputed, peopled had stopped coming.
Within five years, the population of this once-booming area dropped by 1000 percent. Some said it was because of a string of particularly-cold winters. Others blamed changing tastes that attracted folks to destinations further west. There were also rumors that this place was haunted, on account of it being buried on a sacred indian site.
At any rate, the town had ceased to be. That was fine by the people who lived here. People who lived in places like this wanted to forget, and to be forgotten.
About halfway around the lake Richard sat on a log and stared at the water. He threw a stone into the lake, wanting stimulation. A series of circles spread out. Then the water was still again.
There was a time when he believed that solitude was the answer to his misanthropy. And for many years, solitude had been the perfect mistress, giving him pleasure and asking nothing in return.
But solitude had started to turn on him. The discomfort of boredom gave way to real suffering. He knew it would only get worse as he got older, but the alternatives seemed far worse.
Richard knew the secret of those men who sought hermitages in the woods, supposedly for spiritual purposes: they simply hated humanity. There was no sacrifice in their seclusion.
Richard had also looked to nature as a path away from the human. But inhuman though it was, nature hardly offered a satisfactory alternative.
Nature made man, and man made technology. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Technology was not a path away from the human, either. Technology was a mirror held up to humanity that allowed us to consume our illusions. Our devices showed us what we were, but not what we could be.
Richard believed there was something beyond Nature, Man, and Machine. Something ancient and nameless, something alien and terrifying.
Back at the general store Richard asked the clerk why he thought the town had fallen by the wayside.
“Mmm-mmm,” grunted the clerk.
Richard lingered at the general store drinking a milkshake and checking out the stuffed animals and old photographs.
He paused at a photo of miners. Men in those days did not smile in pictures. They still had dignity. These men’s eyes shined like bits of coal in the mountainside. They were the great salt men of the earth, elemental men, never to be destroyed.
A family with two young daughters walked in. The older one was fully developed. She looked like the mother, while the younger sister looked like the father. How wonderful, to be a couple, to each have one’s clone. How awful, to be a couple, to each have one’s clone.
Richard flipped through tourist brochures. He could go zip lining, horseback riding, explore ancient caves, white water rafting, bicycling, wind surfing, kayaking, hot air ballooning, wine and cheese tasting, take a jeep tour up to the mountains…
There was so much to do; there was nothing to do.
Life, in its outer forms, was so seductive. But the real thing made a mockery of us. Life was a highway mirage, shimmering out of being the moment one reached for it.
He’d had enough of life for one day. It was time to retreat to the cabin and tie one on. It was 2:12 p.m.
That night Richard got into the whiskey and did some research on the town.
Details were scant and mundane, covering the need to provide energy to an ever-growing town and a burgeoning industrial area; the investment of capital into the building of the dam for hydroelectricity and flumes for transporting lumber; the efforts of various luminaries to secure the future.
He followed up on the Indian burial site rumors and found an article that explained how the natives believed the area was the site of a powerful energy source – similar to Machu Picchu or Stonehenge.
The Indians believed this was the place where their extraterrestrial creator god would appear and take his people to the cosmos for the next phase of their evolution. According to the myths, the earth was akin to an egg, while man’s life on it was a gestational period. When–and only when–man’s spiritual growth was complete, the god would show himself.
The article went on to describe how acolytes of Helena Blavatsky and Aleister Crowley moved to the area in 1902 and set up a society in the mountains. They called themselves the Phoenix Society, but beyond that, virtually nothing was known about them. It was speculated that the society roughly followed the beliefs of the local Indians, who were often spotted entering and leaving the camp. No other outsiders were allowed. In fact, it was alleged that the society was heavily armed and that they placed booby traps around the area to deter intrusion.
But as the article pointed out, locals weren’t interested in visiting the colony. They considered the society an unwelcome intrusion into their traditional agrarian society. Odd phenomenon occurred in the town. Many townspeople blamed the society’s secret doings. Devilry was said to be at work.
There were reports of cows found dead, torn clean in half, and trees snapped like matchsticks. Strange lights appeared in the sky. An account from a local man described a “spectral cat” that appeared from a “bend in the atmosphere.” Others reported seeing this catlike creature. A particularly brave farmer, with help from his hounds, thought he had the creature treed, but the terror he experienced forced him to retreat. The hunter was never the same after the incident. He moved to a shack on the edge of town and became a recluse. One day, he wandered away and never came back.
Richard stayed up past 2 a.m. reading about the town’s history. That night, he had a peculiar dream.
He was on the top of a mountain in the dead of winter, looking out on surrounding peaks. Far below was a lake.
The ground of the mountain top gave way beneath him and he fell down through the mountain and into a chamber. The chamber was well-apportioned, like a castle’s dining room. On the wall hung a red tapestry with a golden bird.
An enormous table was set. Richard sat at the head of the table. Somebody entered from the opposite end of the chamber and sat at the other head. The table was so long that Richard could not see the person. He had the feeling that it was a king, or somebody very powerful, and that this other person had invited him.
Slowly, people that Richard knew began filing into the chamber and taking spots at the table: his ex-wife; his best friend from childhood; his mother and father; his sister. There were also people he had known in passing, or met maybe once or twice, whose faces were long forgotten to him. Anyone who had played any role in Richard’s life was sitting at the table. Even Beau Meyer and his neighbor in the next cabin were there.
The guests were excited to see Richard, but Richard did not want to talk to any of them. He only wanted to speak with the nameless, faceless person at the end of the table.
At one point Richard rose to give a toast. His guests were waiting for him to speak. The room grew silent as every head turned in his direction. But he could not speak. The people started to boo. Food and glasses of wine were thrown at Richard. He took the abuse without resistance.
Everyone filed out of the room angry and disappointed, except for the person at the end of the table, who began to clap, loudly and slowly.
Day Three: Underground Man
The next day–Richard’s last at the cabin–he booked a sunset jeep tour as a grand finale to the trip.
Departure was at 5 p.m. sharp from downtown. He arrived at 4:50 and waited in the lobby with other tourists. The day had been exceptionally hot. Richard looked forward to sundown.
Besides Richard there was a middle-aged man and an Asian couple. The Asians looked as though they’d spent $1,000 apiece on matching North Face attire. The other man looked staunchly middle class and completely normal. Which is to say, execrable.
At 4:55 the driver came out. He introduced himself as Brody. The 1.5 hour drive each way would be split up by a one hour stop to hike around and watch the sunset. Ample opportunities would be provided for viewing and photography, Brody assured them.
The Asians were eating something that smelled like a dead fish. Brody asked the group if they were “ready to raise the stoke factor.” Richard took a pull from a flask of whiskey.
The jeep had two open, elevated benches. Richard moved straight to the back bench, where he was joined by the middle aged man.
“Paul,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
Richard offered a limp hand in greeting.
Paul was bundled up like it was the middle of February. He had a camera with a massive zoom lens.
“Trail mix?” Paul offered.
Richard washed down the nuts and melting chocolate with warm whiskey.
“Whoa partner, is it happy hour already?” said Paul.
About twenty minutes outside town the jeep pulled off a two-lane highway and began ascending up a gravel road. Brody delved into local history, much to Paul’s delight.
“A prospecting party came to this remote area in 1860. Based on the initial quantities of gold found in the river, they set up a small village as a base for mining expeditions. Two mines were established. Hopes were high that this would be the site of the next big find. But the gold here proved very difficult and dangerous to mine. What they did manage to remove did not justify the money and man hours expended. Many men lost their fortunes–and their lives–on the venture. More easily accessible gold was found further south, which pretty much spelled the end of mining in this region.”
“Fascinating,” said Paul.
Brody stopped talking as the road became rougher. But Paul kept talking, loudly, in Richard’s ear. He wouldn’t stop talking about ice hockey.
An hour in, Brody stopped at a viewpoint. After that was a slow, jarring ride to the final destination.
The time was 6:30. Sunset was in an hour. They were free to do what they wanted until departure at 7:40.
Wanting to be alone, Richard wandered down a footpath that led him to a meadow where wildflowers bloomed. He walked through the tall, unkempt grasses and took deep breaths of the cool, refreshing air.
Further down the ridge Richard could see a wooden building that marked an old mining operation. Curious, he walked toward the structure. He checked his watch. 6:45. Plenty of time for a quick diversion.
He explored an old building heavy with the smell of dry-rotted, sun-baked wood. There was also a horizontal wood-framed mine entrance leading into the mountain.
Richard poked his head into the shaft. The air inside was dank. Drops of water from the cavern ceiling echoed.
Once upon a time, men lived wild and free in the mountains, but those days were past. The mountains were the same, but man’s desire for freedom was gone. Rarefied air existed, but none desired to breathe it. When men wanted these things again, the mountains would be here, waiting.
The voice came from inside the mineshaft.
The voice grew louder.
He stepped inside the tunnel.
He heard it clearly, getting louder. He took another step forward.
Another step. And another. He could no longer see the light from the outside. On he pressed, deeper and deeper, towards the voice.
“One in every group,” said Brody. “Thinks their time is more important than others’.”
The sunset had been brilliant, but that was already forgotten. Paul sighed indignantly.
At 8:02 Richard arrived at the jeep, out of breath and disheveled.
“Richard, what happened bud? We were beginning to think you got lost,” said Brody.
Richard said nothing. He climbed into the back of the jeep and sat down.
During the descent back to town Brody braked hard for something in the dusk.
“Deer,” said Brody. “Sorry about that folks.”
The ground began to vibrate heavily, as if a great herd was thundering across the road.
The first rock hit the jeep’s side with a loud clang. A second rock hit the Asian man on the side of the head like an assassin’s bullet. He slumped over in the seat. His wife began to jabber excitedly in broken English. Her voice was soon drowned out by the sound of rock pouring down the mountainside.
The rockslide was the worst in decades. It took a week to reopen the road. The sheriff called it “just bad luck” that the tour group happened to be at that very spot at that very moment. The slide killed all of the passengers except for Richard.
Rescue workers found him in surprisingly good spirits. He enthusiastically recounted the incident for a local newspaper reporter.
The hospital doctor told him that it was normal to experience the guilt of survivor’s syndrome. Talking to a counselor could help, the doctor said.
But Richard was actually feeling quite good. For the first time in years, he had hope for the future.