We’d just driven off the ferry. Some off-the-map place in Alaska, I think. The faded red truck was big, with a front seat wide enough to fit all four of us with plenty of room to spare. The tires were as tall as my waist, and the bed was twelve feet long with a wooden box framed with two by twelve wood rails along all four sides which had once been painted yellow. It was an old truck because the cab was rounded.
I was walking beside the slowly moving truck on the driver’s side, on the inside of the curve. The road was narrow, and I was helping guide around big holes. Another guy was walking on the passenger side, on the outside, guiding against the drop off. On my side, the road had been cut out from the mountainside, so a geologic wall raised up from my left. It was made of rotten rock, black and oily. I crushed a skull-sized piece in my hand like Styrofoam and then tried to wipe the mess off of my palm.
We came around a turn to the left, and down the hill was Main Street. It looked like some western town from a John Wayne movie: rutted dirt road, wooden sidewalks; but it ran downhill and green pine trees were creeping up from behind the buildings. All the windows were boarded up from the inside.
In the back of the truck the fifteen barrels tied up with yellow nylon rope clanked together when we hit the bumps.
At the bottom of the road on the left was the bank building with painted gold lettering pealing off the glass windows of the front doors. Past the bank, the road turned right, and crossed an ancient wooden bridge that creaked as we slowly drove over it. Orange warning cones were set up on the far side of the bridge. An overweight cop wearing something like a surgical mask over his mouth and nose motioned for folks to keep moving.
Beyond the bridge, one road ran left and right. Another ran forward and opened up into two lanes with a park between them, large ante-bellum houses on either side. We turned left, and the road kept getting worse, with bigger potholes and more rocks and boulders on the sides and sometimes in the middle. It went from downward-sloping muddy ruts to cracked stones, and we parked the truck with its radiator face to face with an eight-foot round granite boulder. It was parked on a 30-degree incline. Past the boulder, a wide shallow stream wrapped entirely around this dead-end turn-off.
We walked back up the road. Getting to the bridge, the cop had been replaced by two guys wearing yellow rubber fire-fighter suits.
Farther up the road, was a huge lodge. Long ago it must have been wonderful, but time and weather had broken it down. The paint was peeling off in three-inch-wide white strips from the wooden siding. It was a gigantic building, but at the far end parts of the outside walls were gone, revealing the skeleton framework. It started raining hard, cold pellets of sleet. We went inside.
There was a fire in a makeshift fireplace in the middle of the room. It was some sort of tavern. People with lined faces and long beards sat around small round wooden tables. Smoke floated all around. Everyone was talking but it wasn’t loud because the room was so large and the ceiling so high. Rain was leaking in from the roof.
I must have got drunk because things start getting hazy here. The other three went off to do business. My eye caught a gal. She was so beautiful. Somehow, I don’t remember how, I started talking with her. I recall her face lit from below by the candle in the round red jar with white plastic lace stretched around it. Perfect and flickering. We kept talking.
Music was coming from someplace: acoustic guitar, banjo, and upright bass. A little girl, maybe 8 years old, with long straight blond hair was laughing next to the grey-haired banjo player. There were strings of lights surrounded by corrugated paper tubes with watercolor paintings on them, swaying to the music and to the wind and to the rain.
The woman I was talking to was famous, a movie star. But she couldn’t take the pressure of fame, and had moved up here at least a year ago. An interesting story: as a child she’d been badly burned in a fire. Her face had to be recreated surgically. Completely. That was why it was so perfect. I remember dancing and kissing and laughing so warmly and deeply…. I was in awe and I was in love immediately.
There was a fight. I think that one of my buddies started it. This big guy pushed the movie star over backwards in her chair at the same time that he knocked over the table. Cigarette butts went flying in slow motion, and a splatter of candle wax landed next to my face. I guess that I got knocked over in my chair too. Tiny drops of wax burned on my cheek, but water drops hit there too. He was hitting me in the face, and then one of my buddies was slapping me awake.
We were in a hurry, running back down the muddy road. If we didn’t stop them, all was lost. At the bridge now the two folks were wearing aluminized containment suits. I couldn’t see their eyes through the thick glass faceplates, but the raindrops made their shiny suits glisten even more in the moonlight that was breaking through the clouds. Yellow warning tapes were hung across the bridge, like crepe paper strung for a party.
At the bottom of the road, the truck was ruined. The bed was at a 45-degree angle to the cab. The barrels were on their sides on the ground, split open, their contents washed down the creek. We were all pissed-off and disgusted, though I honestly don’t know why. What had we been carrying in those barrels?
But the malefactors hadn’t gone. They crept up behind us and started beating us up again. Somehow we drove them off, or ran away. There wasn’t any place left to go but back to the lodge. We started slogging up the deeply rutted road again.
At the bridge the guards were now wearing armor like the storm troopers in Star Wars, but instead of white it was colored black. There were three of them. There were shiny triangular metal barricades blocking the bridge. They made us hurry past.
I knew something was wrong before we came around the last bend. Everything was lit up with orange light. I started running. Most of the lodge was in engulfed in flames. I ran in looking for the movie star. Despite being drenched by the cold rain, I was suddenly hot, dry, and sober. Running through the big smoke-filled room, I found her crouched over the little blond haired girl.
The little girl was trapped under a fallen, blackened, smoking rafter. Around us people were running every which way. There was shouting. I saw faces illuminated by fire, faces with beards, flashes of faces shouting, lit by fire and with blood. In all of this, the rafter moved easily as I lifted it.
I picked the girl up, and we ran through the building, deeper into the building, into the rotten sections that were just skeletons. The fire hadn’t come here because the wood was long soaked with water. I lay the girl down, and realized that she was badly burned, her face and arms blistery and red. The movie star started wailing, and hugged the girl into her arms.
I don’t remember any more after that.
The space shuttle floated above the ocean-wrapped earth, it’s payload doors wide open. I had the feeling that we’d just come from there, and were heading elsewhere. I was reclining in a clear vinyl balloon chair. All the controls were mounted on clear acetate panels
An alarm sounded, and I moved my hand, accidentally touching some translucent button. A hissing sound started and after a few moments stopped. I’d vented some atmosphere. “Oh no,” I said to the fellow beside me, “There’s no telling how far off course that’ll take us.” I looked around to take in the full view of this transparent travel device. We were sitting at the bottom of a great Ziploc baggie in outer space. The crevices of the sandwich pleats let the two of us sit side by side.
It wasn’t too long before we saw the rock. It wasn’t very big, and sort of craggy. The landscape rolled faster underneath as our orbit got closer and closer. The thrusters automatically fired to make us land. Of course we missed the touchdown point. I got out onto a red bluff like something from a Road Runner cartoon. My vinyl spacesuit got warm, foggy, and humid as I followed the ledges around. I finally found our landing pad. There were two pair of four long horizontal yellow tanks with red lettering that I didn’t understand. And a trail led between them, which I followed.
It turned to the right, soon to the left. Slowly the rock changed from red sandstone to black rotten stuff that crushed beneath my feet. I took off my clear vinyl helmet and stuffed it into my back pocket. The trail turned to the left, and down the road below was a western town. Walking down to the bottom of the road, I found a boarded-up bank to my left. Going further, there was a wooden bridge with a dozen rectangular yellow and black biohazard signs on wanker-jawed posts all around, like thorns. A road went left and right, and ahead a park separated two lanes.
I turned right, and eventually made my way up the dirt road to the lodge. The first floor was full of blackened round wooden tables, but no people. On the second floor, far down the hall I found their room.
The movie star was wearing a sun-dress with just two strings going over her shoulders, nothing on her arms. She acknowledged my presence by pursing her lips, pouting, and tipping her head to the side ever so slightly. The little girl had grown up now, was maybe 20. She stood next to the movie star, on the right, intent on the older woman’s left arm. In her left hand the little girl, whose face looked like melted wax from the fire, held a straight razor, but it was shaped like a scimitar, with a broadly curved blade.
She was making very fine cuts into the movie star’s skin. The blood beaded up like a string of red yarn. With her right hand, the little girl wiped the strings away. As I got closer, I perceived the lines of scars on the movie star’s face, forehead, cheeks, and chin. Tight, precise designs, ritual scarification. Some geometric, some wavier. They went down her throat, spread from shoulder to shoulder and lower. Her right arm was covered with a mosaic of fine scars. Her legs were like corduroy.
The little girl looked up from her work and smiled as she recognized me. Her teeth were all filed into sharp points.