The yellow line of the highway pulses in time to the Dead concert on the stereo. Or does it just seem like it is? I suck on my lip and stare out the window at a human world of half-measures. The crass and basic logos that litter the billboards, the hotel marquees with missing letters, the long, low storage sheds with sunken roofs and the tar bruised highway itself, a spectacular feat when first built but now just barely maintained. Everything’s degraded, dying, soaked full of grief and poisons. It’s the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end and it’s happening right on time, as Odious would say, but for many of us it’s already too late.
A sudden fog or maybe an actual cloud descends. Bruce leans over the wheel as he stares straight ahead. The music becomes melancholy; voices sing of weeping willows on a river bank in a way that makes me wonder if such a scene will ever be experienced again. Through the swirling white I catch a momentary glimpse of a human form standing skyscraper high, an inexorable figure moving as resolutely as the wind and weather. “Hey, hey!” I cry out to Bruce, but of course he doesn’t respond and when I look back the giant is gone.
(And if so that something might happen, I were to make a vow?)
We exit the highway into a town called ***, passing the shuttered storefronts of main street and then the backstreets with their bars and beauty parlors and the newsstands advertising CBD. We stop at a stop sign and I look up at the dingy apartment windows above a pawn shop, the curtains drawn and an A/C sitting heavy on the sill, and I’m filled with a longing to rent a place like that and disappear forever. We drive past houses with plastic toys scattered across the lawn and cars up on blocks until the asphalt turns into gravel–there’s the sound of rocks popping under our tires as we roll along, deeper and deeper into a forest. We pull over at an unmarked spot, the Land Rover Defender 90 leaning expertly on the edge of a steep ditch. Bruce closes his door and opens mine, avoiding my eyes as he leans over to untie my hands. He’s warm and smells like Frankincense and strawberries. He loops his arm in mine and leads me through the trees, past old lean-to’s with empty cans of food stacked inside, the walls covered with carved initials, blessings and curses. At the bottom of a steep and slippery hill we pass abandoned houses and a barn with moss covered walls. Trees grow out of the crumbling rooftops. “What happened here?” I wonder aloud, as we pass by the remnants of a cemetery, the few gravestones that aren’t face planted are too blackened and smooth to make out the names. Bruce keeps us moving. He pulls back branches, and tests rocks with his foot as we slowly cross a motionless creek. The silence makes the cold worse.
For a while he pushed himself to talk and make the old mechanism work. But now that’s passed. He survived the mountain for so long by emulating its brooding presence. Since the moment I sobbed in the parking lot he’d become hard–indifferent to my outbursts. I apologized and begged him to say something, anything, but he never did, and I was left only to go back over what I’d stored up in my head.
Like that time in his studio, his face half in and half outside the thin band of light from his desk lamp. He’d become so wary of me returning to the house, that he was compelled to share things about himself, details that I ate up hungrily:
“My parents bought the place impulsively, it being the lowest priced property on the mountain... My father thought that peak was his anchor against the relentless suck of depression, which was a crucial mistake. But from the first moment he stepped inside he was struck dumb and logic went out the window. Cuz that’s the thing, the house is like a funhouse mirror, except it doesn’t warp the way things look, but the way we think about them. It twists our thoughts itself and makes what’s false seem true.
"As you yourself described, at night when the wind howls it feels like the house is expanding and contracting at the same time, or, more precisely, it reveals its true size while clamping down upon anyone in it. At such times, long after everyone else had gone to bed, Behemoth became my solace. I sat in front of him and felt safe in his pale white light. All these years later and I still recall the comfort! Given to me by something so evil! There was the soothing sound of late night television laughter. It was pre-cable, so eventually all the shows were over. I turned the knob looking for something, anything, to appear through all the static. One night I stopped turning and instead sat still and just stared at the flashing white and black, and after some time a show did appear! --A strange show, one I’d never heard of before and never saw again, in which a man’s pale white face filled the black square of the screen, his eyes wild and staring straight at me with such intensity I couldn’t turn away. There was no sound or movement, so at first I thought it was a still frame, but then his mouth moved slowly–too slowly–at first in complete silence, and then all at once instead of words the low rumble of machine distortion filled the room. It was so loud I immediately moved to turn Behemoth off, for fear of waking everyone, but my body didn’t respond. It was as though my arms had fallen asleep. Even more terrible, the man’s gaze had moved to meet my own, which was fixed upon the upper right corner of Behemoth, where the power, channel and volume knobs were. It was as though I’d turned to stone, the only thing I could feel was my heart pounding in my chest. It took a great force of will, a tremendous effort, but after several agonizing minutes I was able to reach out and hit the power button, and the man’s face was sucked away into the tiny white square that floated on the screen while the inner tubes clicked and sighed. My body tingled back to life. I was ok, he was gone. At least until the next time I felt the itch--the unshakeable need to turn Behemoth on again.”
He stopped there, as he knew I knew what came next.
After walking for several miles, Bruce and I come to a set of half hidden train tracks that we follow until they disappear through a majestic stone archway draped with vines. Inside is an ancient brick and granite tunnel that runs through a black hill. Bruce holds my arm as I reach out to touch the ancient opening. I look inside to the exit, a slit of light an indeterminate distance away.
There’s the amplified sound of water dripping. From the other side a bird calls out a question, over and over.
“No,” I tell him. “I mean, no thanks, OK? Let’s take the long way.”
Bruce tightens his grip on my arm and leans forward, as if getting ready to pull or push me forward.
“What are we doing? Why are we here? If everyone’s waiting for us on the other side, why don’t they come to us?”
I don’t want to go in. It’s too dark and narrow. Is Heir Max in here? Like he was in the basement, when he was transmitted by Behemoth? Will the act of me walking through the tunnel bring him out? Will he appear in the guise of my own face’s reflection in the sheen of water that covers the walls inside? Will I hear his words forming from the echo of the bird’s call? Will he be there, in the syncing up of the simulacrum and my awareness of it as such?
I could tear free and run away. I could grab a large rock and beat in Bruce’s skull. Anything to not go inside this dark place.
And then suddenly, Bruce speaks for the first time in days:
“C’mon, Swim. They’re waiting on the other side.”
I’m in shock, I look up at him but he’s looking straight ahead.
“All those years I spent alone was just me getting ready for this. It was like training, I can see that now. The loneliness was a part of it. Each day I took in a little of the poison so I’d be able to stand it when the time came to be of service, for you and for Odious.”
I nod and look down, as my eyes fill with tears. Dead leaves cover the railroad tracks like old confetti. We move forward into the darkness, one step at a time. I run my tongue over the pebble in my lip. The simulation seems to be stuck in a loop. The tunnel looks straight but it traces the path of a snake eating its tail. To say I have no choice is not the right way to say it, but it captures some of the vibe, the story beneath the story that compels me forward, despite these shoes, worn out and used, that can’t take me much further…
“I love you too,” I said to The Babies as they put me down on the kitchen floor. How many times had I looked down at these tiles, in the midst of eating and enjoying together? I’d been crying but saying those words made me stop on a dime. I came up to my knees and looked around at their stricken, puffy faces and felt my heart ache. The only anger I felt directed to me came from Lil Mountain. For a second there when he was leaning over me, I thought he was going to spit in my face. He opened the basement door letting a whiff of cold, dank air into the room. He ran his hand through his hair over and over until his real bangs stuck up like dried stalks from the solid black forehead tat. The blood from my mouth formed a splatter pattern on his vintage X-Files shirt. I made a mental note that when all this was over I’d pay him for what it’s worth.
“Listen,” I said, looking directly at him, “I know you’re all scared. Your minds are buzzing, filled with ideas, but it’s hard to hold any of them down, am I right? It’s like they aren’t real, they just flicker on and off like little dancing lights. Like the ones you saw outside on the roof–you thought it was the government spying on us but this is what Behemoth does. He sends his frequency through the entire house and the area outside. He distracts you by messing with your thoughts and feelings while he secretly takes hold.”
Instead of filling me with fear, the sight of the stairs had a galvanizing effect. A new plan came together in seconds. It was so obvious, how could I have not seen it until now?
“Ok, look. You’re right. I get it. Let’s go down there and find out together, once and for all. It’s the only way to get back on the same page. I’m sorry I’ve been blathering on. I hit my head, you know. See all this blood?”
They looked at me and then at one another. Lil Mountain had his arms crossed and was shaking his head. But I knew it didn’t matter, he had already played himself and would have to go down if The Babies wanted to.
“But you just said how dangerous it was,” 3 said. Oh, how I loved the crackle of his strong, raspy voice. “So now you’re saying that isn’t the case?”
“Well, yes, it IS true I got my ass kicked–and as a result I haven’t been myself lately. Which I’m totally aware of, OK? How fucked up can I really be if I know that I am? And it’s because I was down there by myself, which won’t be the case now. We’ll have one another, we’ll hold hands and protect one another. We’ll lie on our bellies and stop the ice from cracking beneath us.”
“But Bruce had to save you.”
“And he did! And I’m fine. Despite what Lil Mountain would have you believe. Bruce was there, waiting to be of service because as Odious told me and I’ve in turn told you, we’re on this journey and we can’t fail. In fact we’ve already gone all the way to the end and completed it. We’ve won. With open hearts we found one another and let our joy come forth. We figured out how to be happy! The hard part is already over.”
As I said this I really believed it. I watched them look at one another, and then over at Lil Mountain, who continued to stare, whether at me or at some point past me I couldn’t be sure. The old sounds of the house settling upon itself made me realize how much I’d missed this, being here with all of them. Em came over and blotted my mouth with a crisply clean handkerchief.
“It’s nothing, just a little blood,” she whispered, her eyes filled with teary remorse.
“Thank you,” I whispered back, touching the back of her soft hand.
“You’re trying something, I’m not sure what,” Lil Mountain said through a cloud of vape smoke. “Maybe some light show’s gonna happen when we hit the bottom of the stairs, or Bruce will come running in wearing a scary mask. I don’t know but fuck it I’m not afraid.”
“Ok, then,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
The loop of the scene turns not on what comes next–on the wide eyes filled with flashing white light or the moaning or Lil Mountain’s voice, his words coming out faster and faster as his tone flattened out–but on the feeling I had as we stood up. I thought it was happiness, the kind I’d just been talking about, but I know now it wasn’t. It was a high. Like the first one you get off a new drug, the one you finally get the nerve to crush up and snort off a butter knife. I rose from the floor and floated a million miles up. The fear I’d felt for weeks had turned into a hunger, a desire to bring them to the truth that was waiting. How can anyone be afraid of the truth, the voice in my head told me, especially those of us blessed to see the black bars of the everyday and feel the desire for liberation–not only for themselves but for every living being?
My blindness, attachment and confusion was such that I barely considered Lil Mountain. The hatred I felt when I jumped him was gone, which I took to be a good sign. But its lack made me careless. I’d always known The Babies were stronger than he was, so what was I expecting? I can’t piece it together, what was going through my mind as we went in, several of The Babies used their phones to light the way as the cord that pulled on the basement light was only able to be grabbed several steps down–a design flaw and a warning? Maybe so, but it didn’t matter. I was wrapped up in my own trip, homesick for the basement and the extraordinary view from its unique perspective, which was also Behemoth’s trip, and of course, Heir Max’s… we were going down, down down down.
A memory: Lil Mountain, aka Jesse James, aka his real name that only I know, kissed me beneath a desert sky where the clouds cast shadows as big as the mountains. He shaved my head in a motel bathroom, both of us high as the sunset lit up the windows. And later in bed, he held me as we watched the latest Godzilla with all its famous actors in the shadows of rain soaked scenes that seemed so far away from our dry and timeless place. It was the kind of movie you could talk through and not miss a thing–true background art. I told him about reading “The Call of Cthulhu” and getting freaked out by it, considering, at one point, that the hardcover book of Lovecraft stories that I’d found in a secondhand bookstore was itself haunted. “But that was just an easy way out, a detour for my mind to take so it didn’t have to mull over a more plain, yet strangely frightening truth.” Lil Mountain got this, he knew what it was like to feel things too big to hold.
“But let’s think about it now,” he said, offering me a handful of greasy chips as though to make the whole scene even safer, “Imagine that throughout human existence the more sensitive and sick among us can feel these Titans underground.”
“The Great Old Ones,” I said, feeling the fear enter our little room just from uttering the name.
“Yes,” he said, “Waiting down there for the right moment. Imagine that!”
Image: Alexandra Duprez
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