Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
The sound of wheels on the road rolled along like soft static while the false idea of air conditioning hummed a lukewarm song of broken promises. Dira sat stoically in the driver’s seat with the sound of life playing like the world’s saddest music station.
Part of him wanted to break the silence and attempt small talk, but everything about the situation, and the woman for that matter, made him feel like he was a small child in the principal’s office.
He cleared his throat and – in that instance – he felt like he’d somehow broken some kind of sacred pact. He was that guy in the library talking on his cellphone. He was the guy in the movie theatre kicking the chair in front of him. Even though – at a glance – he didn’t see Dira glaring at him, in his mind she was.
The days at The Saturn Inn had been an amalgam of uneventful boredom riding atop a horse of anxiety. Settled between the two was a saddle of worry and wonder.
William had a grand total of fuck all planned out.
Not where Mike could kill him. Check.
Beyond that, the plan fell apart.
Every noise at night made him look out the window. Cicadas. Beetles batting at his door. Every time a car drove near. Every time a new visitor parked their car.
He heard death on the horizon – it wore the sun as an eye in the day and the moon at night and it watched him always.
It was with hesitance that he’d finally wandered into the lobby to ask Dira about how far away the nearest laundromat was – his poorly planned escape now being held hostage to the terrorist of basic hygiene.
“You remember how long the drive was coming in?” she’d replied. “About half that again.”
He’d nodded at that and then said, “Wait. You mean that plus half or just half of that?”
She’d looked at him like he’d just spit out his gum in the church collection plate so he’d decided that the answer must have been obvious enough that he didn’t need it.
He’d been prepared for something old-timey on the radio. In his mind, she was going to hop in her old white sedan and click the station over to something where they were quoting the bible or maybe some AM frequency that played country that only people born in the fifties would be familiar with.
Now, he found himself in a state of longing – looking back at that past moment and wishing, more than anything, that she’d just turn the fucking thing on to anything. Even the erratic noise of an unturned station would have felt less ominous than the sound of silence mingled with the cyclic hum of the car driving and the wind slipping over the windows.
“So,” he finally said, feeling like a kid interrupting a funeral, “is it much farther?”
Dira looked at him like a disappointed grandmother who just found out that he’d been caught smoking cancer sticks in the bathroom with the other hooligans.
“I mean…” he said as she looked back at the road.
His words just hung there like a fly whose life had just been relegated to windshield decoration.
In the odd atmosphere of ambient noise, awkward silence, and inner turmoil, he found himself with blinks that came slower and slower. It reminded him of when he was younger, in one of those old classrooms with the big heaters that ran the length of the wall and the summer heat sank into the room like dense fog and the teacher would drone on and on about The Red Badge of Courage and his eyelids would flutter and his pulse would drop and…
William opened eyes that felt newborn. The world was cast in flickers that strobed with flashes of yellow. Soft taps came erratically amongst the sharper clicking sounds that reminded him of some dreadfully old grandfather clock.
He blinked several times and looked around. The world was dark and little fireflies blinked here and there. Tiny brown beetles bounced against the windshield. Hazard lights clicked in a sonorous cadence and he realized that he was alone inside the car, his neck aching from whatever odd angle he’d settled in as he’d drifted off on his journey to a land filled with clothes that didn’t smell like he’d stolen them from a professional panhandler.
Looking over, he saw the driver’s side door was closed.
Nothing in the back seat.
He sat there and thought. He tried to convince himself that Dira had…something…something…and she would definitely be back. All the while, the rational part of his brain reminded him that nothing about this situation was conducive to the outcome where Dira opened the door and said something about how her friend is just too chatty for her own good.
Eventually, William opened his door and let in the sound of midnight – that odd sound composed of what was missing rather than what was there. Part of him wanted to say something, to call out a name, to send out that verbal assertion like a flare to alert someone to his presence.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he whispered to himself, “no one can hear you…”
He stepped without and looked at the flashing lights of the car on what he imagined must have been a road. Instead, he saw only trees around him.
None of it made sense.
The car was positioned like it had been thrown in a most haphazard fashion. Trees all around. No sign of a trail. Nothing that said, “A person was here and she went that way.”
The sound of something rustling set his nerves even more on edge than they already were.
He had that horror movie moment. Part of him thought he should get in the car…the other part said to run. But what would he do in the car? The protection was meaningless when windows could be broken. And what could he do in the fucking forest when he had all the survival instinct of a fly in a mason jar?
Another rustle sounded. A noise came with it that he swore sounded like something being dragged across loose gravel.
Maybe he heard a noise.
Maybe he just thought he did.
Maybe he was just scared and his mind was a ball of stripped wires that were short-circuiting. Maybe yetis were real and they were the divine rulers of the earth.
Maybe injected itself into his brain like a high dose shot of adrenaline and logic fled.
He moved and stumbled.
He hurried with his arm out as if fending off zombies – every branch a would-be attacker, the dark ground making him perpetually afraid that at any point a hand would reach up, grab his ankle and send him tumbling.
A noise like the ocean filtered through the terror.
It ebbed and flowed. It moved like a rake through sand in a zen garden made for gods.
Like a man who believes that, if he can find a river he can find civilization, he followed the noise. His mind trying to move one direction, his feet another, his stomach another still.
A sound rose up to meet him as his toes met a precipice, like an echo in reverse or life speaking backward. The strange dissonant tone of life in a slow deliberate drip back up and through the hourglass.
It hummed in his head.
It pulsed in his veins.
He looked down and saw darkness that swallowed midnight and balked at its intended intensity while it sang a song made of slow reverberating waves in his ears.
He could see a face. He could hear a voice.
“The message is powerful, and so the messenger is made powerful by the extension of the message that he represents.”
There was a vacuum in the world around him. Sound ceased.
There were no fireflies. No beetles. No mosquitos.
“Nowadays, truth is set on dead pedestals like a fucking championship ring. Everyone thinks it’s some kind of Indiana Jones situation – people out there looking for ancient artifacts to secret them away for safekeeping. In truth, it’s assholes named Chad and Claude and Victor with the shield and spear of Aries set like a fucking hunting trophy on their mantle. Bragging to their friends about the shit they found at whatever the billionaire version of a yard sale is.
“Metaphorically…” he heard himself say.
“Yeah,” the voice said with a chuckle, “metaphorically.”
“You even know what’s in it?”
The haze settled a bit and William saw a bar, but it wasn’t. He saw a face staring at him, but it wasn’t.
It was the lobby of some too-expensive hotel, but the colors were warped like someone had taken the color palette of life and put it on its head and then punched it in the face.
“Above my paygrade…” he saw himself saying.
The face smiled at him.
“You want me to tell you?”
Sound ceased. The volume of the hotel evaporated. All he could see were those eyes staring at him with all the vivacity of the Cheshire cat.
“Where do you think they go?” it asked.
William looked around like a man who knows nothing about cars when looking under the hood of a smoking Camaro.
“They…” a voice said.
William, his toes still hanging from the ledge like a man who had just found out that his job was forfeit on the same day that his wife had left and his dog had died, looked to his right and saw a face that seemed too familiar to not be familiar.
William couldn’t articulate words. It was like someone telling you happy birthday on some random day or that your shoes are nice when you’re barefoot.
“He could have been a set of sandals on some asshole’s fireplace. Just a placeholder for what once was. For what might have been…”
William heard the sound of darkness. It sounded like dust and sunset.
“He wanted to meet you personally. To say thank you…in his own way…”