(align:"=><=")+(box:"X")[An Interactive Novel by Laura Paul]
(align:"=><=")+(box:"X")[[[About->About]]]]What if you couldn’t tell the difference between past and present? What’s real or imagined? These questions form the basis of BLK MTN, an interactive novella available to play online.
A young man named Jackson drives the southeast United States in search of someone – or something – he calls “Bluebird.” However, an unfolding series of strange and surreal events occur, including stumbling into a field full of dead civil war soldiers, compounded by a voice on the radio belonging to a conspiracy theorist with a name remarkably similar to Robert E. Lee. Freaked out and dissociated, he joins forces with a transgender woman, Ashleigh, on her way to Nashville as he tries to piece together why the past keeps seeping into the present day.
The visions won’t stop, though, and eventually, Jackson finds himself at the historical site of Black Mountain College, as the differences between times merge into one, and “Bluebird” may finally prove herself to be real.
BLK MTN confronts and deconstructs the specters of violence and autonomy in the U.S. through word and image, fiction and fact. While there may not always be an alternative to being an outsider, the player may find that unlikely community is ultimately the key not only to survival but freedom.Bluebird hasn’t been showing up as frequently though, from time to time I don’t hear from her at all. She doesn’t call out my name anymore, I don’t hear my name. That’s why I have to write everything down now. I have to write everything down now to find her, to remember what she said, in case her voice has left me for good.
I think she hasn’t shown up now for almost twelve days, at least that’s what the scribble on the back of the discarded receipt in the glove compartment said the last time I checked. I need to review everything I wrote down to make sure. I can’t help but think she’s disappeared completely without a final message I can hold onto.
I don’t know what else to do besides to go looking for her. Bluebird said to go home, to risk danger, and go back to the place on the earth where you can see the water turn black against the mountains. The edge of the continent. Where the sea turns into land, and the land turns into sea. But she also reassured me. It would be nothing but blue skies from now on.
<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVz1ATv7vR8"; target="_blank">Turn on “Blue Skies” by Maxine Sullivan.</a>
[[How did I get here?->How did I get here]]
[[Wait, where am I?->Where am I?]]Sometimes I'd walk, sometimes I'd run. Other times I'd fly, I'd fly with her, I'd fly through her and on her. Other times, I'd be sleeping, but sometimes I'd be awake. I don't know what this state is, the state of vision, of seeing, of dreams. Of feeling and seeing so deeply, in tune, while awake. [[Especially when she doesn't show up->just in case she calls]].(link:"Bluebird came again today, or maybe yesterday, I’m not entirely sure.")[Bluebird came again today, or maybe yesterday, I’m not entirely sure. The days all run into each other these days, and it’s hard to distinguish time, at times. The days run into nights and the nights run into days. Bluebird rises and falls with the night, she often comes at night, the sounds of her calls dizzying and confusing and waking me up. But when exactly she found me, I’m not quite sure. And how she found me, I’m not so sure.]
(link:"Sometimes I see her, Bluebird, and sometimes it’s as if her voice takes the form of some abstract shadow or shape.")[Sometimes I wondered if Bluebird was not really one bird, but maybe two or three indistinguishable Bluebirds constantly shape-shifting and switching places, one after another replacing each other. I wondered at times if Bluebird wasn’t even really a bird, but an illusion conspiring against me, an elaborate trick being played. Maybe there was no Bluebird, although she sounded altogether bird-like, cooing and chirping in my ears when I least expected.]
(link:"I used to be scared of her, avoiding any sounds at all costs.")[I’d stuff my ears full of pieces of tissue paper, shreds of newspaper, paper towels. But she told me not to be afraid, that there was only kindness here. I asked why no one else could hear her when I could, and she said that wasn’t true.]
(link:"I try to be proactive now, though.")[I don’t wear headphones or drown myself out with music anymore, not ever. I make a concerted effort, [[just in case she calls->just in case she calls]]. No more foam earplugs or stuffing my ear canals full of paper. What if she had something to tell me, something important, and I wasn’t able to hear her? Before I found the car, [[sometimes I'd walk the streets for days at a time->Sometimes I'd walk the streets]], yelling, “Bluebird! Bluebird! Where are you? Caa, Caa!”]Should I call Jim? I should call Jim. I shouldn’t call Jim. I’ll call Jim.
I call Jim and he picks up on the last ring.
“Hey man, it's Jackson.”
“Buddy! Where are you? We'd been wondering what'd happened to you.”
“I'm driving right now. Somewhere in Texas.”
“Texas, man. What a trip! At least tell me you're headed in my general direction.”
There's metallic clanging in the background.
“I'm busy in the kitchen right now, but yeah, man. Get here as fast as you can. I'll text you the address.”
[[I’ll book it to the other coast.->Book it to the other coast]]
[[What’s the rush? I have nothing but time.->Not wasting my time.]](if:(history: where its name contains "How did I get here")'s length >= 1)[But that was before, not now. ](if:(history: where its name contains "Touche, brother.")'s length >= 1)[I'm not in Mexico, ]I've made it to Texas. At least that's what the signs say.
Before the state line, I stopped at a truck stop that had shower stalls and paid twelve bucks to clean up and brush my teeth. Steep, but still, cheaper than a campsite. That was hours ago now. But the lull of the engine, the lull of the wind repeated over and over again was getting me closer to falling asleep at the wheel than anything.
[[Turn on the radio.->Turn on the radio.]]
[[Turn on Teach Yourself Spanish! in 30 Days.->Turn on Spanish in 30 Days.]]
[[I should call Jim—that'll wake me up.->Call Jim]]I drive through the night. I pee into an empty water bottle. I nap in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Arkansas. I get drive-thru five times, four cups of coffee. It takes 15 hours, or 20, or 25, I lose count. But after driving through both sunrises and sunsets, there's a tunnel, no light but a tunnel, and then there's light, there's the light, the trees, the leaves as I speed, [[I speed on down 40 to someplace Jim calls home.->BMC Road]]Public listings for Robert E. Lees I found in Texas:
Robert Edward Lee, (link:"80 years old")[80 years old, Hico, TX]
Robert Edison Lee, (link:"53 years old")[53 years old, Shiner, TX]
Robert Elton Lee, (link:"39 years old")[39 years old, Plano, TX]
Robert Ellis Lee, (link:"67 years old")[67 years old, Fredericksburg, TX]
Robert Edward Lee, (link:"13 years old")[13 years old, Mesquite, TX]
[[Not sure what that helps.->Not wasting my time.]]Suddenly, the radio cut out with a loud screech, my right headlight dimmed, flickered, and then completely snapped off into darkness.
I pull over onto the shoulder, the gravel popping up at the windshield as I veer off the road, crackling under the weight of the tires.
It’s still hard to see with the headlight missing, but no one’s around, only what looks to be empty pastures to my right. Not that I’d be eagerly trusting help in these parts.
[[My mind drifts.->My mind drifts.]]
[[I should check under the hood of the car.->Check hood.]]I try to start up my head, remind myself where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I had already seen my way past the Grand Canyon, I’d seen a million birds fly into the sky.
[[Wasn't there someone named...Frank?->Frank intro]]There I told a man named Frank, as his nametag stated, I was looking for Bluebird. Frank told me that the birds held up the sky and that we went from the dark night into unknown wandering in search of the bluebird. It was a part of the tour, and if I wanted to buy a ticket, they were available at the front counter.
[[I'm pretty sure I bought a ticket.->Has ticket.]]
[[I don't think I bought a ticket.->Doesn't have ticket.]]He said the Hopi see the bluebird as a directional guardian, associated with the West. (link:"I asked him how he knew that.")[I asked him how he knew that, if it was something she had told him, it almost sounded as if he knew Bluebird, or at least that she had been here before. Frank told me he had learned it in the tour guide training book. (link:"He said the Havasupai people had a name for people like me.")[He said the Havasupai people had a name for people like me, but I didn’t understand, and didn’t quite catch the word. He asked if that was why I came to the Grand Canyon and I laughed at him! No one needs a reason to visit the Grand Canyon, it’s beautiful, that’s all. [[You don’t need a goddamn reason for beauty.->Doesn't have ticket.]]]]We smoked a cigarette together after that. I told him I was sorry that he had to wear a uniform and stand at the edge of the canyon to exemplify native life. He groaned, amused. He said, “At the end of the day, I get paid to stand by the Grand Canyon,” and that at least he wasn’t wasting away in some cubical somewhere.
[[I said, “Touché.”->Touche, brother.]]
[[I gave him my last cigarette and walked away.->Where am I?]]At one point he called me “brother” and said he hoped I found Bluebird after all. I liked that he called me “brother,” almost casually, like it was effortless to him. Like we were just two guys hanging out. But I laughed, told him I’d probably have to travel the whole goddamn country before I knew where Bluebird was, and even then, what if Bluebird wasn’t even in this country anymore? What if I had to chase her down past the border? [[Maybe she only existed in that indeterminate, halfway place down by the Rio Grande, south and more southward.->Where am I?]]
Underneath it gave the address for the Doric Masonic Lodge at 2101 21st Ave S, Nashville, TN, located above Friedman’s Army & Navy Surplus.
For a group of paranoid conspiracy theorists, it seemed strange that they were accommodating enough to place such a public advertisement in the open and tout their snacks as widely as the Alcoholics Anonymous pinned next to it. Did they think somehow that those who were after them wouldn’t be visiting the library?
The clarity of voice is one thing, but the tone and subject matter mimic what I heard in the car that night with the men in the field too closely.
I can't help it, I have to go see for myself.
[[Drive to the Doric Masonic Lodge at 2101 21st Ave S->To Doric]]<img src="https://www.laurapaulwriter.com/s/BLK-MTN-Soldiers.jpg">
The photo was one of the rare things I remember from history class. We had been studying the Reconstruction period, and my teacher had been rattling off a long list of mind-crushingly dull facts and figures for us to memorize. I flipped through the pictures in the textbook, more intrigued by these documents of the past than a string of dates and numbers.
A series of portraits of dapper young soldiers prior to fighting the Battle of Fort Sumter. These men, all consistently strong-jawed and light-eyed, almost felt more pin-up than bloodthirsty, but alluring nonetheless. I wasn’t out at the time, but there were multiple lingerings of desire I was already exploring. (*Did I sleep with Jim? I can’t remember)
What caught me though, was the book noted that these famous photos were all titled underneath with the soldier’s names and rank, but after the notoriety of the images became so widespread, no one could figure out who these men were. Their names never matched registries with either the Confederate or Union armies, no numbers, ranks, or dates of birth could be found anywhere.
Some rumored the photographer had paid models to sit for him, those attractive men being a much more touching portrait of hardship during wartime than the homely and sometimes disfigured soldiers who fought. But even then, there was never a model, hustler, or down-and-out traveller that ever came forward.
None were ever found and no one was ever identified, not even falsely claiming to be one of the faces that would be immortalized forever.
[[Inspect further.->SF 4]]<img src="https://www.laurapaulwriter.com/s/BLK-MTN-Oxbow-Motel.jpg">
I look closer at the brushstrokes of verdant hillsides and crooked trees. They have jagged edges and pointed corners from the pixelated file it must have been printed out from. There are cracks on the bottom right corner of the frame as if it had fallen on that side multiple times, too heavy under its own weight. Everything in ruin, the immensity of history can’t hold itself up.
Further past the picture, the same numbered rooms in the 100s. I walk further, Room 111. The ice machine sits beside it like a loyal guard dog. A stain crawls out from underneath the metal legs on the left side, making the floor look soiled and moist. There must be some condensation that seeps out, unpreventable.
[[Walk futher.->OKC Motel 7]]I crunch my way back down the stairs again, my feet sinking into the plastic carpet with each step. Down the hall, there’s the same painting of a hill overlooking a misty, twisting river, a scene without highways or cars, painted before the invention of the modern motel chain. The plaque screwed into the frame reads, “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow.”
[[Look closer.->Look closer.]]<img src="https://www.laurapaulwriter.com/s/BLK-MTN-Go-MotelUSA-Sign.jpg">
[[I try to enter the password on my phone.->Password]]
[[I have a feeling it might not work.->I don't think it's going to work...]]Across the street there's a library. I guess at least I can wait here while I figure out what to do. Did she tell me where she was headed? I could stroll bars downtown in hopes of running into her, finding her again. Was there a way to find her? She wasn't from Tennessee though, or did she say?
I stroll down the aisles of the decimal system, fall into local resources. For some reason, the state’s seal depicted a colonial ship and a snail on it.
I continue to comb the room since there’s nothing else for me to do.
Beyond history, religion, fiction, and science fiction, past magazines and newspapers with yesterday’s events. A community bulletin board, and its pitches—animals for sale, anonymous meetings, when all of a sudden [[something catches my eye on the community bulletin board.->Bulletin board.]]It looks like there’s a tollbooth up ahead, a phantom checkpoint. Maybe I won’t be let in if it's even inhabited at all. It’s a single-person structure, splintered and ashy, cracks all along the sides. To my surprise, there’s a pair of feet dangling off the bottom edge of the windowsill. My first reaction is to pray that I haven’t just discovered some deserted breathless body.
[[Stop at the tollbooth.->Stop at booth.]]
[[Drive through it—it's just a camp, not a bridge.->Pass booth.]]As I pull up parallel with the booth, I can peer inside enough to see the gangly-looking boy resting his feet out in front of him, a mess of dirty blonde hair just almost covering his eyes. He looks half asleep.
“I’m looking for a guy named Jim. Do you know him?”
I want to make sure he’s not a hallucinatory figure, someone I’ve just made up. He nods his yes, but still not a word. By this guy’s expression, I can’t tell if I just told him the secret password or spoke of he-whose-name-should-not-be-spoken.
“He should be around. Follow this road around the lake and to the left.”
He extends his arm and motions down the road. He must be well past six feet tall. At full range, his forearm sticks right out of the tollbooth, like some kind of strange bat or bird of prey, his wingspan is springy and expansive. He’s not bad looking, although a little haunty for my taste.
“When you get to the kitchen, tell him Milo sent you.”
He cracks a half-smile and sits back down to his original position as [[I start the car back up and trail north up the road.->Pass booth.]](link:"The lake that was just an abstract hint of shimmer before comes closer into view now, forming a significant body of water.")[The lake that was just an abstract hint of shimmer before comes closer into view now, forming a significant body of water. There’s an abbreviated dock at the far end, but no boats to be seen. As the road curves around, some shapes of structures start to emerge, but they’re all different, from here they look to range from barnlike to midcentury, or before — like something from the 30s or 40s. A few old cars, although judging from the layer of dust, it doesn’t look like they’ve been driven anytime recently.]
(link:"I pull off next to the other four cars in some sort of haphazard row and hop out, leaving all my stuff in the back.")[I’m not entirely sure that I am in the right place. Nonetheless, the place is beautiful, and it’s quite unexpected that there’s anything back here at all. I pull off next to the other four cars in some sort of haphazard row and hop out, leaving all my stuff in the back. I’m not entirely sure that I am in the right place. Nonetheless, the place is beautiful, and it’s quite unexpected that there’s anything back here at all.]
(link:"All of a sudden I hear a bell ring, not like a big electric buzz from an automated timer, but like someone actually pulling down on the clapper and giving it a wail. ")[All of a sudden I hear a bell ring, not like a big electric buzz from an automated timer, but like someone pulling down on a clapper and giving it a wail. To my surprise, there’s a group of people emerging, chatting, lively, discussion abounding as they come from who knows where. I hope to see Jim in all these faces, if Jim was in fact up there with the rest of them. One by one, group by group, they all head out where I had come in from, going out and then breaking away from one another in different directions. Some headed out towards the lake, some up towards the hills, and others I don’t know where. No one gives me a double take, no one questions why I’m here.]
(link:"There are more people than I expected. A trio of younger women emerge less eagerly than the rest of the group.")[There are more people than I expected. A trio of younger women emerges less eagerly than the rest of the group. A shorter woman with loose wavy hair leads the conversation. They might be the only ones left in the building and my last chance to get any information without chasing after everyone who’s already left.]
[[Ask them for help.]]
[[I should mind my own business.]]Later that afternoon I walk out to smoke a cigarette down the slope towards the lake. (if:(history: where its name contains "Offer Ashleigh a ride.")'s length >= 1)[Suddenly, I freeze in my tracks. [[Ashleigh’s here.->Ashleigh at lake]]] (if:(history: where its name contains "Offer Ashleigh a ride.")'s length <= 0)[A handsome black man wears a wrapped cardigan over a neatly fitted collared button down and sits with a sketchbook at the bank of the water next to a willow tree. He looks recognizable, I must have seen him teaching in one of the studios as I passed. His hands are covered in paint.
He looks up at me, before I can wander the other direction. I hadn’t meant to disturb his work. His eyes have an amber glow to them, like the comfort of a dark orange sunset before nightfall.
[[“I was passing by, didn’t mean to intrude.” I explain, embarrassed by the confrontation.->JLaw Intro]]
]I crunch gravel as I walk away from the pumps, apparently too lost in thought. As I move away from the neon buzzing in the storefront window, a delicate voice calls out.
(after:1s)[“Hey, could I—”
"Ah!” I jump.
(if:(history: where its name contains "Cooler")'s length >= 1)[My hands fumble with my drink and it spills all over my pant leg, causing the liquid to splatter all along the inseam. My jeans are now a partial sticky, brown hue, making it even more apparent that I haven’t done laundry in a couple weeks.]
“Oh God! Sorry,” the shadow of a voice retreats.
From the side of the convenience store there’s a figure that I can barely see. My eyes haven’t adjusted to the assault of light from inside the store.
(after:3s)[[[“What are you doing sneaking up on people like that in the middle of the night?” I yell out to nothing and no one.->Sneaking]]
[[I hurry back to the car.->Don't offer ride.]]]]I’m not quite sure what convinces me to give her a ride, and later, when I look back on it, I still won’t be able to figure out why I did—so many things will have been clarified and destroyed and then formed back again all mashed together by then. I suppose loneliness is at the base of some of my stupidest decisions, and the best I can do is just pray it’s not stupid enough to kill me.
Perhaps I give Ashleigh a ride merely because she isn’t an image I remember from a history textbook or a phantom in a field. She isn’t a man named Ralph whose skin shines green under fluorescent lights and can’t talk without shouting. It’s one way to prove to myself I’m not losing my mind.
[[As long as she can keep me awake as I drive and doesn’t respond quoting the future plans of the Illuminati, I’m going to count that as a win for the night.->Ash 2]](if:(history: where its name contains "Call Jim")'s length <= 0)[I'm getting freaked out here by myself. Should I call Jim? I should call Jim. I shouldn’t call Jim. I’ll call Jim.
I call Jim and he picks up on the last ring.
"Hey man, it's Jackson. I hope I didn't wake you up."
"Buddy! Where are you? We'd been wondering what'd happened to you."
"I'm driving right now. Somewhere in Texas."
"Texas, man. What a trip! At least tell me you're headed in my general direction."
There's metallic clanging in the background.
"I'm busy in the kitchen right now, but yeah, man. Get here as fast as you can. I'll text you the address."]
(if:(history: where its name contains "Call Jim")'s length >= 0)[[I’ll book it to the other coast.->Book it to the other coast]]I let go of the rolled tobacco, smoke drops towards the ground as I walk faster towards the lake. But how did she find me all the way out in North Carolina? She must have been one of the girls that Jim mentioned. She’s okay, she’s here, she’s made it. But how?
(after:2s)[I see her, standing directly in front of me in the near distance, with the same profile, same height, same dimensions, same sand-colored hair swept to the side, same laugh. How did she know to find me here if I didn’t even know this was where I was coming?]
(after:4s)[I come to a sudden halt for a pause, scared for a second to even move, my brain flooded, over-stimulated, buzzing with excitement, nervous frequencies. I hadn’t accounted for this. I had mourned for Ashleigh as if she were dead because of her absence in my life. I don’t know what words I could form. What can I even say to her now? Does she see me? I want to be mad, like lovers after a spat, a passionate makeup pending. I was so focused on finding her, fixing all of this, that I never imaged she could just manifest in front of my eyes.]
(after:6s)[I nervously stumble up closer to the edge of the lake, my brain already editing out moments of time in my hot panic. The closer I get the more I know it’s her. It’s a recognition beyond belief.]
(after:8s)[“Hey….” I trail off uncomfortably, like when you see a childhood friend you don’t expect to run into at some unseemly event.]
(after:10s)[“Oh! Hello there,” she calls back, eagerly. Her voice is like having my eardrums pricked with a needle.]
(after:12s)[That voice is recognizable anywhere. A sound I never thought would be possible to hear again.]
(after:14s)[“Ashleigh,” I say her name out loud, possessed, entranced, somewhere out of this world.]
(after:16s)[Stumbling across the most intimate of things is disorienting like that.
[[“It’s nice to meet you,” she responds. “I’m Marisol.”->Marisol Intro]]]In switching over to radio, I didn’t figure that in the strange territory of AM stations there was bound to be (link:"something that stopped me.")[something that stopped me, especially not in the middle of the night.
What caught me was the word “conspiracy,” a loud, buzzing word passing through the two front speakers of the car that worked. To be more precise, it wasn’t a word, but a phrase, something that sounded like, “…vast nationwide conspiracy, starting with the octagon,” which I later realized was “pentagon,” which was much more logical, at least conspiracy-wise. [[*I do remember this.->Radio 2]]]I realized that hearing “yo quiero/te quiero/se quiero” repeated over and over again was more of a hypnotic lull more than me learning anything.
I nod off.
[[I should really turn the radio on instead.->Turn on the radio.]]
[[I should stop and get some caffeine.->Gas Station 1]]In the glove box, with all the rest of these notes, is the battered Owner's Manual for my 1995 Honda Accord, Garnet/Rust (Color).
I flip frantically through the table of contents:
[[Battery........................................p. 30->Honda Battery]]
[[Heating and Cooling.................p. 79->Honda Air]]
[[Audio..........................................p. 84->Honda Audio]]<img src="https://www.laurapaulwriter.com/s/BLK-MTN-Honda-Air.jpg">
[[Battery........................................p. 30->Honda Battery]]
[[Audio..........................................p. 84->Honda Audio]]
[[What's that in the field?->Soldier Field 1]]<img src="https://www.laurapaulwriter.com/s/BLK-MTN-Honda-Battery.jpg">
[[Heating and Cooling.................p. 79->Honda Air]]
[[Audio..........................................p. 84->Honda Audio]]
[[What's that in the field?->Soldier Field 1]]<img src="https://laurapaulwriter.com/s/BLK-MTN-Honda-Audio.jpg">
[[Battery........................................p. 30->Honda Battery]]
[[Heating and Cooling.................p. 79->Honda Air]]
[[What's that in the field?->Soldier Field 1]]I imagine the voice from the radio darting out at me from around a fence post, a skull with skin half peeled. My eyes dart wildly when I can’t pin down where a disembodied voice is coming from. Bluebird’s not even here to tell me what’s going on.
[[Maybe I should check under the hood.->Check hood.]]I’m freaked out, if only because I wasn’t planning on sleeping on the side of the road tonight (already done that too many times). I track down the side of the highway (2nd mistake). It’s not that steep, I might as well piss out here if I’m going to be stranded. Although the further I step down, it starts to smell musty and soured—not quite right. Immediately [[I feel the urge to run and hide, but from what I’m not sure?->SF 2]]I leave the car running and step out to see if there’s any smoke coming from the hood. As I lift up the metal, the car completely dies, lights, engine, radio and all.
[[Maybe I should check the instruction manual.->Check Instruction Manual]]
[[What’s that in the field?->Soldier Field 1]](link:"The wider I pass my lighter to the left and right through the darkness, the more familiar the scene looks. This death view is familiar because it looks exactly like the historical photograph, but even more real than it ever seemed.")[
(link:"My mind is jumping around as if I can feel the bullets flying, whizzing by, penetrating the air, but now I’m so unsure of where I am and what’s going on that I haven’t gotten more than a few footsteps back, away from the corpses. The photograph, which was supposedly taken in 1864, of real people, is now replicated in front of me, with real people—none of this adds up.")[
(link:"But the hand I touched was a real hand. And with closer inspection, these men are wearing sun-faded, dusty uniforms, something not from this century. It even looks like the weather conspired to bury them, to let the wind pass over them and let the wind pass over them and make the visible world forget. But I’m here. Bearing unforgettable witness to this insane catastrophe.")[
(link:"I’m not reaching back down to grab a wrist and see if for certain the flesh is flesh. I’m not filing an investigative legal complaint on whether or not I’ve time-traveled, or witnessed some historical massacre, or have been cruelly tricked, or not. I’m not spending another minute in this hell, whether or not it actually exists. I don’t care if I’m out of my mind, or fell into a rip in the fabric of history. I don’t care if I’m standing in a photograph, I’m getting myself out of here.")[
[[Half stumbling, I run back to the car and surprisingly get a few revs out of what I was under the impression was an otherwise dead car. It’s only after looking down at the keys in the ignition that I realize there are wet patches soaking my shirt, snot on my sleeves. I try and try to get the car to start, and amidst a few curses and prayers it does.->SF 5]]
I see a very sunburnt man appear, slowly running towards the door. Thankfully, he looks alive and from this century.
“Hiya,” he says, a bit out of breath. He eyes me up and down.
[[“Oh, uh...are you open?”->GS 2]](if:(history: where its name contains "Turn the radio on.")'s length >= 1)[The time it takes to get to the next gas station feels like it’s across state lines, but at least what I find is open 24 hours. Skidding into the parking lot, I’m surprised the owner doesn’t think I’m robbing the place.
I grab the nearest discarded Kleenex off the floor and make a quick note, tossing it into the glove compartment. Before getting out of the car, I take a quick look around to make sure there aren’t any spare corpses trailing me. The night feels even more and more urgent, and I’m on edge as ]I make my way towards that big bright savior of a mini-mart.
I grab the warm metal of the door handle, and it’s locked.
[[Turn back to the parking lot.->Ashleigh intro]]
[[Wait, aren't the lights inside on?->Gas station scene.]](link:"My feet sink into the ground as I slip further and further away from the road. The ground feels more bog-like than anything, maybe there’s been a flash thunderstorm recently, although I don’t remember it raining.")[
(link:"I’m not too excited about venturing much further out since it’s getting hard to walk in the mud and it’s pitch black out here, no stars, no moon.")[
(link:"The sky must be covered up with clouds. It makes me miss the reflective brightness of the moon when it’s there, but tonight there’s nothing. I don’t remember if that’s supposed to be auspicious or the exact opposite. I thought I had paid more attention while I was driving, but the nights and days have started to blur all into one. It feels as if I’m dipping down into the earth, like one of those giant sinkholes that appears out of nowhere, suddenly creating a void where there were only houses or an oil well before. Liquefaction, isn’t that what they called it?")[
(link:"I start to unbutton the top of my jeans when my foot brushes up against something large, like a big log or a rock or something and use the outside of my shoe to guide myself and keep steady, but it’s sticking underneath whatever it is, as if there’s a large root that my foot’s now lodged under. I’m trying to twist my ankle out, but it’s definitely become locked deeper in the roots. Dammit, what did I get myself into? I pause, and the weight of the shaking earth sits in my mind. I can see it clearly, the destruction, the movement, the sudden change all at once. A half-awake dream state, I haven’t been sleeping well.")[
(link:"I try to kneel down to reach for the log when my left foot hits something else. When I pull at my shoe and try to brush the bark away, it feels like cotton, and there’s flesh.")[
[[I scream, and the night sky, which had felt so empty, is suddenly not empty at all.->SF 3]]
(link:"Still, my foot is caught under someone’s arm, not roots, not rocks, not stumps. Not anything that should be lying in a field in the middle of the night. I’m not sure if the sound that emerged from me lasted minutes or only a moment, but the panic hit my adrenals, and suddenly my blood was filled with terror.")[
(link:"I want to cry with frustration as I scramble to get my foot out from where it was trapped below. Forcefully and cautiously, I try to maintain as much distance from anything that’s not my physical body and could be, or at least used to be, someone else’s. I’m kicking and kicking under a human arm, before stumbling back over a hand, until I fall backward into putrid rot.")[
(link:"Then squirming on the ground, the stench grows. It’s the smell of decay, and it’s repulsive, unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before. There’s been blood spilled, but it doesn’t smell fresh, like when I cut myself shaving. My mind is on fire. What have I found?")[
(link:"I claw again at my breast pocket searching for my lighter, a cheesy, gold-plated, bald eagle lighter that I never thought would be a saving grace. (*Did it come from the Grand Canyon?)")[
(link:"I strike a flame, presented with a view that no person can possibly be prepared for—it’s the sight of hundreds of men, slaughtered, dismembered, littered as far as my faint light reaches.")[
(link:"At this point, I tried to scream again out of reflex, but nothing came out.")[
(link:"I attempt to run back to the car, but I can’t move, I’m swallowed in the whole of it, it’s a view like one you could never possibly construct. A photograph wouldn’t even come close to this experience, but then again why would you want it to?")[
But there’s a reason my brain drifts to an image. Something in me realizes, in a scary way, that this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this image before.
[[Inspect further.->SF 4]]
]]]]]]]I peel back out onto the highway, one headlight lighting my path, swerving into the distance when the radio immediately goes back on at full volume. I feel as if my ears have cracked in half. The spattering voice interrupts all promise of solitude I had back in the car. I go to turn it off, but I’m stopped, only as I’ve turned the sound down to an audible level that doesn’t make my head feel like I’m hemorrhaging. Next, a list of names is rattled off with precision:
(text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")[(after:2s)[“Carey Buchanan...Bill Thornton...Belgrave Adams...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:3s)[John Cab...T. Flowers...Henry Williamson...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:4s)[Henry Greeves...Lloyd Schminner...Sherman S. Sherman...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:5s)[Pollack Smithson...Neal M. Thymes...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:6s)[Glynn Elliott...George McAdams...Edward Katz...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:7s)[Ken James III...Jason Stonewall...Arthur Patsman...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:8s)[Dave Farragut...Kelley Burns...Peck Williams...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:9s)[Ronald Purpose...Rick Myorte...Adrian Hevab...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:10s)[Keith Snickter...Tom A. Pills...Ryan C. Kaplan...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:11s)[Marion Trecatin...Elden White...J. N. Andrews...](text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")+(after:12s)[Ted Koplenton...Carl von Clausewitz...Jessen B. McClellan...]]
(after:13s)[Then the voice clears, a pause:]
(text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")[(after:14s)[...the catastrophe we’ve just witnessed...will go down in history as one of the greatest abominations the government has ever orchestrated...against its citizens...this slaughter...this land...this great nation of ours...*then static*...one nation, under surveillance...This is R.E. Lee, signing off again in the deep night, once again…”]]
[[Turn off the radio and get away from here.->Gas Station 1]]“Yeah, of course. For you. Come on in...”
He takes a half bow and waves me through as he props open the door with his foot. With all respect to late-night convenience store employees, he already creeps me out. The bags under his eyes look more like bruises, at this point in his life they’re probably semi-permanent fixtures. It’s all occupational hazard.
After a night full of fear and hallucinations, the modern quickie mart feels like walking into a television screen stuck on a crime procedural marathon. I feel like I’m watching the same stabbings repeat over and over again, program after program. There’s a faint chemical smell, maybe from the cleaner. There are too many colors, all over every product and package, rainbows of glossy plastics and foils precisely arranged. Stimuli everywhere, as if a bunch of pixels freaked out and decided to try all of their combinations at once. Everything sounds like it’s buzzing, or crinkling, or fizzing, or maybe I’m anticipating such sounds.
I’m wary of this man whose nametag says (font:"Comic Sans MS")+(text-colour:red)+(background:white)[''RALPH''] but I guess it’s not the time to be judgmental of the company I keep.
[[“Do you have any coffee going?” I ask him.->GS 3]]
“Not at this hour, kiddo, but I can always make up a batch.”
This guy looks like he’s too old to be in a healthy range of thinking we’re going to develop some fundamental camaraderie. It makes his gestures awkward, in a 3 o’clock in the morning, uncomfortable sort of way. The kind of interactions where you can’t tell if the person secretly wants to kill or fuck you. I’m going to get out of here as fast as I possibly can. Why is it that speed sometimes is the only thing that feels like safety?
[[“No, um...I’m good. I’m...uh, in a bit of a hurry. I’ll just grab a Coke.”->GS 4]]I start to wave him off as I turn towards the wall of refrigerators in the back.
“Sure, well we got Sprite, Pepsi, Mountain Dew—”
Is he messing with me on purpose? I’m not quite sure what he thinks I said. I turn back to him, at least to acknowledge the confusion.
“You said you were looking for a Coke, weren’t ya?”
His eyes are direct, I feel his gaze scanning across my face.
“Well, we got Sprite, Pepsi, Dr.—”
[[“No, I’ll have a Coke, that’s what I said.”->GS 5]]There’s anxiety bubbling in my throat. I don’t know why this transaction is taking so long. I wanted to get some caffeine in my system and get the hell out of there without making a friend.
“Ah, must not be from around here, are ya? Where you from, boy?”
“Headed east, that’s all.”
I don’t want any closeness with him, not even casually. Not now.
“I could tell you ain’t from these parts. You must be from real out west.”
He emphasizes the W in a pronounced, drawly sort of way.
“Son, everything’s a Coke here.”
He stares at me, penetrating. My expression must be vacant. I’m afraid of what he sees.
[[“Yeah okay, got it. I’ll take this then.”->Cooler]]
[[“Forget it, I'll just grab a pack of American Spirits, the turquoise ones.”->GS 6]]There’s a drink cooler adjacent to the front counter, one with anthropomorphic arms and legs, although the eyes are printed disconcertedly on the torso of the can man. The bottles bob around in melted ice, clinking their plucky song.
[[“And a pack of American Spirits, the turquoise ones.” I add.->GS 6]]“I didn’t mean to, I thought...” the voice replies.
A slight woman with thin arms and thin legs emerges from the margins. White tights. A bright pink skirt that rises above her knees. She’s got an indeterminable age from the heavy makeup on her face, somewhere between 25 and 40.
“Where are you headed?” she asks me.
[[“I, I don’t know,” I stammer. “Who are you?”->Ash Intro 2]](link:"“Excuse me, I’m trying to find my friend Jim.”")[“Excuse me, I’m trying to find my friend Jim.”
“Pardon?” The taller girl in a cornflower and navy blue striped dress turns and looks at me, stopping her friends. They all seemed absorbed in their conversation, my question a surprise.
(link:"“Do you know where I could find him?”")[“Do you know where I could find him?”
“Jim?” the woman with the darker features repeats.
(link:"“Yeah, Jim Clemens. I think he lives here.”")[“Yeah, Jim Clemens. I think he lives here.”
“Oh, J.C.!” she smiles as the recognition spreads across her face. “He’s probably in the mess hall.”
She looks down at an antique watch on her wrist with a leather strap. It looks antique, as if it belonged to her grandfather at one point.
(link:"“I’m not familiar with the surroundings. The kitchen’s through there?” I point down the hall.")[“I’m not familiar with the surroundings. The kitchen’s through there?” I point down the hall.
“Just around back. It’ll be the first building you see on your right. You won’t miss it.”
“Thanks,” I reply.
I’m so close. This still feels like a big prank though. Like when I get to the kitchen someone will jump out and yell, “Surprise! We’ve never heard of anyone by that name! Or of you!” [[Luckily though, and unlike my fears might try to dictate, that’s not what happens at all.->I should mind my own business.]]
]]]]I follow the line of the water, double back and weave through a cluster of identical buildings. A cabin, a workshop.
I make my way around the perimeter of the lake to a long stretched-out building that does resemble a children’s camp and find a swinging door around back. I can already feel all sorts of heat escaping, and there’s a row of wet pans lined up outside, drying in the sun. I hear some voices and a trail of laughter that can only be an indication of one thing: [[Jim is in fact here.->JC 1]]I open up my wallet to pay for my purchase.
“So how you likin’ these parts?” he asks as he leans down behind the counter. “Are you staying for a while?”
I’ve seen too many movies with this scene and assume he’s going to come back up with a shotgun. I pull out some cash—I want to get out of here—but as soon as I reach for the money, the words slingshot themselves out of my mouth, as if a wall of teeth couldn’t prevent the avalanche. It’s a reflex, like someone knocked on my kneecap with a rubber hammer and made me kick out my leg.
I grab my things off of the counter.
(if:(history: where its name contains "Turn the radio on.")'s length <= 0)[“Thanks. Keep the change,” before [[I turn to leave.->Ashleigh intro]]] (if:(history: where its name contains "Turn the radio on.")'s length >= 1)[“Do you know if there’s a tourist attraction...down a bit way back, off the highway, maybe somewhere close to South Locust street?”
“You mean the tractor emporium near Hereford?” he asks.
“No, no...right off the highway, like a Civil War memorial or something?”
[[“Not that I know of, and I've lived here 22 years. That blood mostly didn't fall on our soil.”->GS 7]]]
“Not anything? Like commemorative grounds for fallen soldiers? It doesn't have to be a historical site necessarily. Even a statue? A marker?”
The words sound sped up as they tumble out of my mouth. My heart thumps hard, shaking my Adam’s apple. I feel like an old VCR on fast-forward. The way it scrambled images into an indecipherable blur.
I feel like a bad comedian with a spotlight stuck in his face. Sweat trickles down the neck of my shirt. The man with the nametag that says (font:"Comic Sans MS")+(text-colour:red)+(background:white)[''RALPH''] sets the change down on the counter, and I nervously shove it back into my pocket. He eyes me suspiciously.
“Son, we certainly honor the past around these parts, if that's what you're getting at.”
I feel his gaze penetrate me. I walk towards the door, packing my cigarettes.
“I understand. Thanks,” I say. “Sir,” I add quickly.
I start unwrapping the pack before I’m out the door. I hear him lumber after me.
“Son! What’d you say your name was again?”
An electronic bell ding-dongs as I [[exit back outside.->Ashleigh intro]]
XAMU, AM station 800 came in clear as I was still heading east. A man’s voice echoed deep, like he was speaking in a cave, far underground, although I wasn’t certain if this was because of the radio frequencies or the radio’s receptivity. The following was all I could make out:
(after:3s)[(text-style:"smear")+(align:"<==>")+(box:"=XXX=")+(font:"courier")[“...vast, nation-wide conspiracy, starting with the...Pentagon...(after:6s)[micro-waves...have you ever? *scratching sounds* even looked at the back of a dollar bill!] (after:9s)[...there is no...no, not a coincidence that these men were slave owners! Starting with...our history...not only the President...all of us, a nation under control. This is top down...the plight...of us targeted individuals *cuts out for a long pause at this point*] (after:12s)[to that which we must fight...stand up for what we believe in...not mind control, but total annihilation of...ending in...freedom.”]]]
(after:15s)[He then identified himself as “R.E. Lee.” Really, there is no way this was serious. Did they really think there’d be people out there swayed by an alias?
[[Should I look up other R.E. Lees in area?->Look up other R.E. Lees]]
[[I'm not wasting my time with this wacko.->Not wasting my time.]]]“I need a lift. My phone died, but there aren’t any outlets for me to use.”
She raises the limp black cord in her hands to display. Backlit by the flashing signs, her bleached hair resembles a halo gathered around her forehead.
“Ralph won’t let you use his?” I ask, pointing back inside.
“No, that guy sucks,” she answers with a nervous fidget.
“My car over there,” I point at the beat-up red Honda parked in the dirt. “I guess you can use the cigarette lighter if you want.”
“California license plate,” she says out loud as she follows me.
[[I keep asking myself what I’m doing. At this point though, I’m glad she doesn’t seem to fall into any category between Confederate soldier and conspiracy theorist.->Ash Intro 3]]I unlock the car, and we both slide into our respective seats. Her face lights up as her phone is revived back from the dead.
“What are you doing out here in the middle of Texas?” she asks me, half distracted as she sends a frantic text.
I see her eying my crusty backpack and the half-empty water jug in the back seat. I feel nervous, like I have an unexpected visitor over to an unkempt apartment. I scramble to hide the paper cup that I wrote on.
“I don’t know, road trip,” I mumble.
“Where are you headed?” she asks as she continues to punch her fingers into the screen.
I can feel myself freezing up, my face blank. I try to come up with an excuse, an answer. What was it Bluebird said?
“I guess towards the coast...where it meets the black mountains.”
“Black Mountain? Near Asheville?”
“Is that where you're headed?”
“No, not Asheville, Nashville.”
“What are you doing there?”
“You know, girls' weekend. That'd be perfect if you're headed to Asheville, I'd be right on the way.”
[[Offer Ashleigh a ride.->Offer Ashleigh a ride.]]
[[Get away from her—this night is too weird as it is.->Don't offer ride.]]
"Of course I do! Good to see you, man."
He wipes powder from his eyes before laughing and pulling me in for a strong shoulder clap turned bear hug. A warm and goofy-looking smile hangs on his face, unlike the shriveled jack o’ lantern comparison. His face looks the same as it always has, somehow not aging at all, his beard scruffy, but clean. I immediately feel at ease.
“I parked next to some other cars on the side of that modern-looking building, is that okay?”
“Yeah of course, we run things pretty much our own way around here.”
I see the other guy shuffle closer as he puts the joint out on a nearby windowsill.
“This is Fielding, by the way. Fielding is a regular crack up, and at times I swear he’s very civilized.”
“At your service,” he says, his voice cracking, followed by a few wheezy coughs.
“You hungry or anything?” Jim asks, “I mean we do preside over this goddamn icebox and everything.”
I notice a few empty bottles down on the floor where Fielding had been standing. It makes me wonder what time it is.
[[“Uh, yeah I guess a little bit, actually.”->Eat]]
[["No, I'm fine."->Don't eat]]“Great, well I don’t have much time to whip you up anything special. Standard’s kinda been peanut butter sandwiches and brews around here, but it does the job. We have a community garden down the road that we tend to and pick from a few times a week, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow if you want something from down there. The girl's really kept this farm rolling during the war.”
“Peanut butter’s fine, I appreciate it.”
Jim pulls out the largest container of peanut butter I’ve seen and carefully constructs the sandwiches, making multiples. He’s always been someone I’ve been in awe of—that someone with such a reckless of a love for life would be so profoundly focused and caring about food. He had always been that way. When he dropped out of school and made a reputation in whatever restaurant he hopped along to, we weren’t surprised. There was a gracefulness his whole fumbling body poured into cooking. As captivating as it was to watch, it was even more so to taste. He even made peanut butter sandwiches look skillful.
After tying them up with a few pieces of waxed paper, he gently places them at the bottom of a big brown sack and looks to the door.
[[“Well, let’s go get you settled in, for now,” he says to me as the two of them escort me back outside.->Don't eat]]“You’re free to crash here as long as you need. With wide-open nature, God knows there’s the room.”
He heads us towards the long, thin building that corners the lake, with identical windows lining the sides. It’s low and sharply modern, both fitting in perfectly and not at all with the environment. I wonder for a second if this was something I studied in one of my classes, but more than that curiosity, I can’t recall.
“There should be some extra rooms right now. I think there’s a few empties on the same side as Fielding and me,” Jim says.
Jim takes us down a long hall once we get up to the second floor. It feels like it’s getting later in the day, but the sunlight still streams down at the perfect angle through the lakefront windows. It’s the kind of sunlight people are meant to fall asleep in.
“Here’s me and Fielding’s rooms over here to the right,” Jim gestures as his feet clink, making large echos in the hall. “You can tell where we are from the large mandala on Fielding’s study room.” Jim points, caringly, almost caressing the red lines that compose the circle.
It’s hypnotic, really, especially in the light.
[[“Where’d you get that?” I nod over at Fielding.->Mandala]]
[[I'm drawn to the design, but too tired to ask about it.->Settle in]]“Nepal,” he replies matter-of-factly, stoically.
"Oh cool. When were you there?"
He’s not cold, but takes his thoughts a bit more seriously than Jim. They make the perfect comic duo with Fielding as the straight man. It becomes immediately apparent that Fielding is not going to elaborate on what he was doing in Asia.
[["Nice."->Settle in]]Jim tries pushing on a few doors to his left, checking for any form of resistance. We come to the last door at the end of the hall and it’s already cracked open, swinging wide at Jim’s touch. The space is vacant, and by far more exciting than any number of the motels Ashleigh and I had crashed at.
(link:"“Well, ding-ding-ding, we have a WINNER,” Jim announces, bouncing his sing-song off the walls.")[“Well, ding-ding-ding, we have a WINNER,” Jim announces, bouncing his sing-song off the walls.
The room is basic, but inspiring, a wardrobe and closet on the left by the door and a single bed with a brown felt blanket to the right. There’s one table, one lamp, one desk, one chair. The Venn diagram comparing this to a jail cell would be fascinating. It’s a bit small, but not cramped, and no matter what the feeling is, it’s one that’s warm and homey. I guess the prison vibe is killed by the absence of locks. Here it was totally free.
I set down my bags and take in the view. I can’t wait to get in that bed.
“Will this saw-fice?” Jim snaps his lips with a hiss, channeling some Victorian aristocrat he would have shared nothing in common with. Even with inductions and introductions, he could make the most banal of things playful.
(link:"“Yeah, this is great. Really, wow. I can’t thank you enough,” I’m still reeling a bit from what feels like the penthouse view.
")[“Yeah, this is great. Really, wow. I can’t thank you enough,” I’m still reeling a bit from what feels like the penthouse view.
“We have a big town hall tonight at 8 PM, dinner’s sometime beforehand. There’s also some sort of music thing after. Not sure if you’re up to any of that.”
[[“Is it cool if I play it a bit easy tonight? I’m not sure how social I’m feeling after the drive, let alone participating in a meeting. Can I meet you after if I’ve gotten some rest before then?”->Sleep]]
[["I'll try to make it out."->First night]]
]]“Yeah, of course. I’d stay with you and keep you company, but I got to finish prepping bread dough and I have to deliver the closing address tonight at the meeting. You sure you got everything you need in here?”
“Is there a bathroom somewhere?” I ask, realizing I didn’t notice one.
“Oh, bathroom’s back at the end of the hall where we came in from. There’s a couple of stalls and a few showers.”
Suddenly, I notice that Fielding has slipped away and is no longer standing behind Jim. We must have bored him with our logistics.
“Awesome, I think I’ll be good. Really, I can’t thank you enough. Should have everything I need, more than I’m used to, anyhow.”
At the end of my sentence, I notice Fielding has come back, slipping around Jim’s sturdy frame. He has a wiry, yet knotted body, one you imagine undigested food and bad feelings get stuck in often.
(link:"“Here, I brought you this.”")[“Here, I brought you this.” Fielding stealthily slips me a beer, almost as if it appeared out of his sleeve like some sort of magician.
“Thanks man.” Maybe he does like me after all.
I take the beer and open it with a sharp crack, sliding the cap onto the bed before it falls onto the floor. A bright yellow bottle cap, a circle with spears protruding off the sides and a sun symbol on top, reminiscent of the now fading sun itself. It’ll soon be dark in the coming half hours. The minutes have already trickled by.
“If you need us we’ll probably be in the kitchen a good chunk of the night. Vamos, Amigo!” he shouts, lifting his hand up, piercing the air.
He shuts the door behind him as Fielding wimpily calls out, “Good night.”
[[I hear them exit back down the hall, Jim’s footsteps and muffled voice still sounding bright and buoyant even from outside the room.->Sleep BMC]]
]I start to unpack a few things I brought in, find a toothbrush I’ve been using, a clean pair of socks. Digging around the plastic bag I had of bathroom stuff, I find a weird thing of floss I took from a motel just in case, another comb too cheap to be anything but free with a few teeth missing. (if:(history: where its name contains "Motel 1")'s length >= 1)[Below, there's a plastic black square down at the bottom of the bag, covered in some sort of light powdery film. This was Ashleigh’s.
I pull it out immediately, finally recognizing it as her makeup compact, still covered in the fine cream-colored silt she used to press onto her skin. I imagine the dust has traces of her in it, the chemically, lab-created face paint co-mingling with actual flakes of her own flesh, dancing and spinning in the air around me. This is what she saw herself through, a co-creation with what was seen as inorganic and artificial. But she knew who she was even more than I am still clueless about myself. This is what she saw herself through, physically, this little black box, still some fine, sparkly glitter on the back, the mark of magic, her signature. I prop the small thing up on the desk to my right to see myself through it as well.
After I find some decent smelling socks, which I realize that Ashleigh and I shared too, even though they were a few sizes too large for her and where they would rise to my ankle would be to her calf, I head down to the end of the hall to find the bathroom. It feels good to piss, rinse my face, act like I actually have some daily ritual that delineates day and what separates it from night, even if mine’s reversed.]
After rinsing off my face, I try to rally to go to the music performance. The scene is wild. Costumes made of wire and cardboard. Something gestural and rich with motion. The rocking of the road hasn't left me though, and I feel my eyelids start to droop.
[[I give a slight wave to Jim, having the time of his life and sneek out the backdoor.->Sleep BMC]]I must have passed out cold, and at the most unusual time, because I wake up at blue hour feeling like I arose from the dead, my arms and legs taking their own time to remember their existence. I stir around, I feel refreshed. Don’t remember the last time that’s happened, maybe my first night with Ashleigh.
I scurry down the hall in my tube socks and boxers to the bathroom again. The air hits my chest, cooler than I expect.
(if:(history: where its name contains "Mandala")'s length >= 1)[On my way back the red mandala on Fielding’s door catches my eye. The most anyone else has for decoration is a few black and white snapshots, here and there there’s a few lines of poetry or scattered quotes. Fielding’s door is comprised of the swirling red lines and a giant red “F”. A little more flamboyant than you’d expect from his personality. Jim’s door has a modest picture of him in the kitchen where I met them, cooking what looks to be fried chicken. If it weren’t for the “F” you’d think their doors were flipped. But still not a peep out from behind any door. Only the muffled sound of faint snores.] I run the rest of the way back to my room, cold from the air. I duck in the door and immediately scramble for the big pullover hoodie from my bag. I hadn’t used it much on the trip, from the heat. After throwing on my pair of black jeans that the crotch still hasn’t quite busted out of and tightening myself in my sweatshirt, strings drawn close to my head, [[I march myself outside, wildly awake, despite the lack light in the sky.->BMC Morning 2]]“Hey, how are ya, buddy? Hopefully got a wink?” Jim greets me, always on.
There’s not a trace of sleep on his face. Fielding, however, looks like a half live corpse some grave robbers dug up. He might still be drunk, or napping, sleepwalking even as we walk. I’m not quite sure.
Jim lays out the schedule for the day. Breakfast and optional morning exercises. First class Drawing 1. Lecture, work on the boat house and adjacent structures, optional packed lunch, break and lake time, Class 2, dinner, and then town hall after. Oh, and also there’s an audition for an interpretation of Thorton Wilder’s //Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden//, a little one act, but there aren’t many characters.
(link:"“So, this is some kind of training school or something?”")[“So, this is some kind of training school or something?” I ask Jim. It’s not sounding religious enough to fulfill my cult fears, despite the close quarters and hard work.
“It’s a college,” Jim responds, almost teacherly. “Although the FBI did have their very pointed questions about the experiential nature of our curriculum,” he gives off, followed by a laugh echoed by Fielding.
This place must be rubbing off on him. I have a bit of a hard time imagining the school being accredited by some larger organization, making the students construct the buildings themselves and dishing out peanut butter sandwiches via boy scout camp. I’ve never really thought about who deemed colleges collegiate or not. I suppose if I wasn’t such a wimp when it came to physical work, I wouldn’t mind that the students needed to build their own classrooms.
(link:"“What kind of college?” I ask him.")[“What kind of college?” I ask him.
“It’s called <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Mountain_College"; target="_blank">Black Mountain College</a>, it’s an experimental education community, with a focus on the arts. A lot of it came about because of the need for it, but has only been emphasized being the tumultuous events going on in the world. People started coming in from all over, fleeing from authoritarian leadership.”
Jim gives a pleased smile, his pride showing.
“We’re going to head over and eat, you coming along?” he asks.
“I think I should probably head back and shower first.”
[[“I’ll meet you back at Drawing 1,” I say, heading back to my room to be alone.->Drawing 1]]
[["I think I'll explore a bit first, but I'll catch up with you later."-> Duck out]]
]]I forget after I’ve walked out almost half of the way that I don’t have a pen or a pencil or any sort of notebook or anything. I was definitely unprepared for this, remembering now that my primary concern entering this town was whether or not I had brought enough beer to the camp.
As I approach the building, there are voices floating through the air, some shoes and bags left outside the door, a primary schoolhouse feeling. I’m slightly less intimidated than I expected. I take a deep breath and lock my hand on the door, preparing myself to count tiles on the ceiling or squint my eyes until the lines blur.
//“…to experiment is at first more valuable than to produce, free play in the beginning develops courage. Therefore, we do not begin with a theatrical introduction we will start directly with the material itself.”//
I sit down as close as I can to the exit, just in case, next to a tall European woman with curly hair.
“Is this Drawing I?” I ask.
“Yes,” she whispers. “That’s <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Gropius"; target="_blank">Walter Gropius</a> right there.”
I try to write notes in my head.
-To Experiment Is At First More Valuable Than To Produce
-The Material Itself
[[-Beginning Develops Courage->Pre Marisol]]As I’m still on the opposite schedule to everyone here, the rooms are fairly vacant when I get inside. A shower would feel good, a bit of time to try to clear my thoughts. I thought it’d be a bit nice to get established here, but now I’m not so sure I want to contort myself to fit into this place, and my fate is definitely not going to be dependent on whether or not I earn a college degree. (link:"Jumping through hoops isn’t a skill I’m especially keen on.")[Jumping through hoops isn’t a skill I’m especially keen on.
I don’t get out of the shower particularly fast, taking my time to think just what my next move should be. This could have all been a huge mistake, it’s starting to seem like the further I progress, the more I work my way into a corner. (link:"I had made a beeline dissecting two barricades, at 90° right angle, working myself straight into the corner where wall meets wall.")[I had made a beeline dissecting two barricades, at 90° right angle, working myself straight into the corner where wall meets wall.
Maybe I could give myself a week. At the end it wouldn’t be unusual for me to leave having already stayed a bit of time. It’s not like Jim and I had planned for my visit. Maybe the fact that this wasn’t a preconceived idea meant I could probably fade out and on my in a few days time. (link:"It’s comfortable here, but I don’t want to be siloed into another group that I’m always on the outside of.")[It’s comfortable here, but I don’t want to be siloed into another group that I’m always on the outside of.
I get dressed in the same clothes I had on, except I manage to find another shirt crumpled down at the bottom of my bag that I haven’t worn in a few days. I guess I can face this. If I was brave enough to potentially have been bought a drink with a conspiracy theorist then I can probably make it through an art class.
[[I fidget around a bit, stalling and taking my time before heading to art class.->Drawing 1]]
]]]I leave the classroom with my mind spinning. A countless number of things I've never tried. Things I never knew I could become.
I direct myself back to the kitchen, looking for lunch, for Jim.
We almost run straight into each other as he's leaving and I'm entering.
“Hey buddy, I think there’s some new students coming in today,” Jim mentions to off-handedly.
I hear the words, but nothing registers, treating his banal statement as if he’s reporting clouds in the sky or the number of sacks of flour we’ve still yet to purchase. Of course, Jim’s focus is on any potential newcomers.
“Word is they’re siblings, I don’t know where they’re from,” he adds. “Might be a brother and sister? And maybe someone else who’s come from doing military service overseas."
[[I duck inside and eat quickly, with no sign of Fielding.->Pre Marisol 2]]I clear my throat, my mouth dry and stuck closed. I clear my throat, feel my tongue dried onto my pointy teeth like fish bones in the sun. I try to clear my throat. I clear my throat.
I flash back to the night Ashleigh and I met, she had approached me. I had never set any sort of intention to find her, it was no grand discovery. I must have just been open and receptive to receiving it, this bizarre thing, this person that randomly fell into my life.
“Marisol?” my voice trembles out, not wanting to anticipate the next moment.
“Sí!” She shoots out her hand fast and sharp as if she’s eager to meet me for the first time.
“I didn’t catch your name,” she replies. “Did you say you were called ‘Lee?’”
“No, it’s Jackson.”
My heart immediately sinks. I’m still convinced it’s her. There’s something decisive about her action. I try to keep my face from sinking. It’s impossible. [[She looks over at me, still smiling through the puzzlement. I try to explain what I can't explain.->Marisol 1.5]]The land turns into the sea and the sea turns into the land. O sertão vai virar mar e o mar vai virar sertão. A woman named Ashleigh, no, Marisol, but sometimes called Mar. Or Soli. Sea and sun. Together. It’s too close to making sense but none of it actually does. She’s her own living entity, not some projection for me to form. But still, identical. Risen from the dead. Revived. Ashleigh. No, someone else. Identities aren’t pure and natural—we’re formed by shifting things. More like clay than a potter’s wheel and its uniform spin.
Still they’re too similar, too identical, have the same spark, the same air about them, something beyond the soul, something deeper than DNA. If I knew what I even thought about such things.
I find myself walking around the perimeter of the water, stewing in my confusion, reeling from this meeting. I’m not sure how much time has passed. I’m getting angry about the past, about where I came from, it feels good to at least be outside, I’m thankful. I can’t stop thinking about Ashleigh. I want her to be Marisol, or vice versa. Maybe they are but don’t know it, or I’m her and don’t know it and the sea turns into the land and the land turns into the sea. Amen. Fuck. Men. Women. Sea, sí. Mar. Marisol.
A handsome black man wears a wrapped cardigan over a neatly fitted collared button down and sits with a sketchbook at the bank of the water next to a willow tree. He looks recognizable, I must have seen him teaching in one of the studios as I passed. His hands are covered in paint.
He looks up at me, before I can wander the other direction. I hadn’t meant to disturb his work. His eyes have an amber glow to them, like the comfort of a dark orange sunset before nightfall.
[[“I was passing by, didn’t mean to intrude.” I explain, embarrassed by the confrontation.->JLaw Intro]]
[[I get up to leave->Bypass JLaw]]
“It’s not a bother, you can sit if you like.”
It seems rude to ignore his offer so I plant myself down on the dewy ground. Geese pass by on the lake in the distance. I can tell now why he picked such a prime spot. The light hits the water at the exact angle that the landscape explodes in its illumination, its gold.
“So what brings you here to Black Mountain College?” he asks me.
“Didn’t really intend to make it all the way out here, actually. I’ve been traveling around the south.”
“Good Lord, I’m sorry. To even get to the school <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Albers"; target="_blank">Josef</a> had to hire a private driver for us because of the segregation. I’d only ever been down here once before. Sure, I’d heard stories of how bad it was in the region, but never had to live in this.”
I notice him close the sketchbook and lay it to the side.
“I suppose <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anni_Albers"; target="_blank">Anni</a> understands to a extent as well. If it weren’t for the Nazis they wouldn’t have had to come to America. They’d still be teaching in Germany.”
“Where are you visiting from?” I ask him.
“I was born in the north, grew up manly in Harlem. There’s been too much moving the last couple years on account of my being drafted into the coast guard—I’m certainly glad to be teaching here now. The wars years have been filled with too much unbearable pain. Here though, there’s enough of a balance between the solitude and community. “If you don’t have community, you don’t have anything. I don’t know how you survive.”
I reflect on his words for a minute. Solitude and community weren’t the opposition I had considered, but seems more important that I’d realized.
“You teach here, right?” I ask.
“Painting,” he answers. “People probably know the migration series of mine best of all, I suppose, but it’s been important for me to work out and reflect on this recent time of war.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t made it into one of your classes yet.”
“It’s been a new experience for me too, haven’t taught much before coming here. Helps to crystalize my ideas, defend my practice though.”
We both stare out into the distance, past the forest, past the mountains black with shadow, the white reflection of sun on the mirrored lake. The starry brilliant shine of environment on environment.
“It’s so beautiful here,” I tell him. “Makes me not want to leave.”
“I haven’t,” he replies. “Much safer here than anywhere else.”
“You paint portraits?” I ask him.
“People, places, the whole nine yards,” he replies. “Although the scenery here is captivating enough to make for its own subject.”
I zone out into the spiraling distance, the hum of bugs, the vibrating trails of glare and contrast before he starts again:
“It’s interesting to think that when we look at a landscape, or a person for that matter, a color is almost never seen as it really is—it’s completely relative, dependent on our eyes as organs, the quantity and quality of light. Mr. Albers talks about this all the time, have you taken class with him yet?”
“Not yet. Only been sitting in on Drawing 1 with Gropius and a drama workshop so far.”
“It’s the afterimage effect—once you look at something for so long, it’s imprinted, it’s held by the eye. Then, when looking into a void, the reversal of the thing appears. All colors are held by one another, comparative values and shades all interdependent one on another.”
My eyes begin to blur and I see what he means.
“Are you an artist?” he asks me.
“I don’t really know what I am. I guess I’ve been trying to write down what I’ve seen. There’s no other way I can make sense or keep track of anything.”
“My wife also likes to write. A painter too. There were so many talented poets and novelists that hung around the Harlem Community Art Center back in the day. Her name is <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwendolyn_Knight"; target="_blank">Gwendolyn Knight</a> if you happen to meet before I get the chance to introduce you.”
“Mr. Lawrence!” a voice shouts out from behind us.
We both turn to see who’s calling. A group of students on their way to join us. I like the peaceful solitude though, I think this man was right.
“It was nice to meet you, Mr. Lawrence.”
I rise from where I had been resting to resume my lonesome walk.
“Please, call me <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Lawrence"; target="_blank">Jacob</a>—“ he outstretches his hand. “And you are?”
(if:(history: where its name contains "Marisol 2")'s length >= 1)[[[I walk far off by myself again, where I find myself introspective and wanting to avoid the group.->Bypass JLaw]]] (if:(history: where its name contains "Marisol 2")'s length <= 0)[[[I walk far off by myself again, where I find myself introspective and wanting to avoid the group.->I can't do it. I wave them off and walk away.]]]I look up ahead, on the bank’s edge where the tree line dropped off. There are shoes scattered around, jeans dropped in piles. There’s a group of people splashing around, magic and light, the water becoming shining splinters of glass that refract and magnify nothing but murky depths and the water’s plant life below. It seems like a perfect, joyful moment, it seems like nothing I belong to. I’m hoping they don’t see me. The power to be invisible seems like it would be a blessing in times like this.
(link:"Marisol...")[Marisol sees me immediately from the bank. She shouts, waving her hands in the air:
“Jackson! Come in!”
If I just walked back the other direction, maybe I could pretend she had mistaken me for someone else. But no, she knows that it’s me. She’s too happy, too excited for me to bolt the other way.
I slowly make my way towards the disregarded clothing. My heart is beating, I don’t want to be doing this. There are a few other people I can see from here, although seemingly genderless in the distance. [[There’s a man next to her who looks like Marisol, and consequentially, like Ashleigh. The world is lost on me.->Mar Lake 2]]
The signs past Asheville are for Black Mountain. I turn and then turn and then turn down a long driveway or road, I’m not sure. [[Camp Rockmont for Boys, 375 Lake Eden Rd, Black Mountain, NC 28711.->Rockmont Booth]]I take a deep breath and gather up the courage to swing open the door and barge in unannounced. When I step inside, I see a light-skinned man with a taller stature, baldish head and bandana wrapped around, hands filled with some sort of pasty dough. Another man alternates giggles and puffs on a joint. The man with the bandana is holding out a long stretched-out piece of dough that dripped downwards, and apparently he had used it to cover his head. A long, oblong, stretched-out face can be seen in the remaining wheat paste. It looks disfigured but recognizable, like a jack o’ lantern’s smile after it has been sitting on the porch a month later, eyes sunken in, a mouth on the verge of collapse. He comes closer after discarding the misshapen dough mask, wiping flour off his hands onto the apron he’s wearing.
“Jim Clemens, at your service,” he sticks out his hand for an official looking handshake.
[["Don't you remember me?"]]We drive through the waning dark hours. The truck headlights are our only friends. I had expected her to sleep the whole way through, but apparently, she’s not comfortable enough to do so. Can’t say I blame her.
“So where in California are you comin' from?”
The seatbelt feels as if it’s tightened up. I have to readjust so I don’t feel like it’s choking me.
"That’s a far way away. Why are you headed to Asheville?"
There was no easy way out. I pray she drops the case so we can focus on going forward, driving away, rather than looking back. Maybe it was a bad idea to have company. I can’t tell her about Bluebird, can I?
"Don't really have a plan. Out to see my friend Jim, I guess."
She looks at me directly, as directly as one can sitting side by side with someone in the car. She’s breaking me.
I see the images in my head, replaying back in perfect recollection. Except I don’t know for sure if they’re true or not, or something I made up.
[[Tell her about the Hoover Dam.->Hoover Dam]]
[[“I heard a voice telling me to leave.”]]“I remember heading south towards the desert, on the precipice of entering Nevada. Pulling off at Exit 1, the closest place I could reach before the Hoover Dam. The vehicle spiraling up the hill, my headlights becoming more and more pronounced the later it got. I didn’t remember turning them on. What if light had been emanating out from them the whole time, but it was too bright for me to see it? There was a parking lot ahead, and my feet had already begun to anticipate the feeling of the pavement, being able to walk around—I’d forgotten how sore my body was from not moving. I pulled over and parked next to the few other cars there, turned off the engine, and quickly jumped out of the driver’s seat. I felt a panic as if time was running out. I stood at the edge. There was water ahead, there was electricity and wires crisscrossing everywhere, and a family with some young girls jumping about on rocks and laughing. The night had felt comforting then, rather than dangerous. The sunset had rendered the hills pale and blue, and not at all a threat.”
I suddenly realize I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve said anything. Did I stop speaking in the middle of a sentence? God, I hope not. I see Ashleigh looking back at me.
[[“I heard a voice telling me to leave.”]]“Come again?” she asks immediately. “You came all the way out to Texas because you heard a voice?”
Beyond the windshield, the land winds its way past us, like we were the ones holding still, and instead it was the earth and road moving like the world was on a conveyer belt or something.
“What about you?” I change the subject. “Are you a stowaway or a gym instructor or something?”
I gesture at her shiny duffle bag, still squeezed tightly between her feet.
“Well, I’m kinda in-between places right now. I’ve got some stuff at my cousin’s place in Nashville, but I just don’t really need to be in one place, you know?”
I can read the years of experience in her face. I can tell she’s seen some shit, probably things I can’t even imagine. The heavy accumulation of people and places and times.
“Have you lived many places?” she asks.
“Checks out.” She reaches for the controls on the dash. “You think we could we get some air in here?”
She stares back at me, a thin eyebrow raised. I scramble to cover.
“It’s broken. Makes a terrible smell when it’s on. Like gasoline and antifreeze. The radio too. Busted. Don't mess with it or all we'll hear is static."
I don’t want Ashleigh touching the air conditioning or the radio, or the glove compartment with these notes in it, for that matter. As long as those external things are under control, maybe nothing unexpected will happen. No voices can seep into the car from far away. We’re driving fast enough that even with the windows cracked, nothing can get in.
There’s only the sound of Ashleigh’s voice, a real voice, with a human body attached. I sorta like her, not Bluebird, her. Ashleigh. She’s brought an intimate quality to a long drive in an empty metal shell of a car.
“Can we at least stop and get out for a second?” she asks. “I need some fresh air.”
[[Don't pull over.]]We end up pulling off the highway onto a side road, where a stream flows by the overpass so that we can stretch and breathe fully for a minute. I guess it’s been a few hours since the gas station. I hadn’t realized I had my left leg tensed up the whole time I was driving, locked in the same haphazard, angular position. It’s asleep and hard to walk on at first, with all the nerves are tingling.
She leads us down to a small bank dotted with gravel, it gets dustier as the path slopes downward. There’s no one else around, it’s not the most scenic area, but it’s something. She bends over to throw rocks and twigs out into concentric ripples in the water.
“My dad always used to beat me after I came home from school if I had mud on my clothes,” she mentions to me and I’m quiet back. “Back when he was still trying to ‘make a man’ out of me.”
She says something about him accusing her of being “a Pecos Bill,” and telling her that she ought to “know better than that.” I hadn’t realized I wasn’t fully listening, with only snippets of conversation leeching their way into my head. I was absorbed in the scenery. Whenever a car races above us on the highway, it sounds like rushing water at first. I’m confused. I can see a nest of birds in an Elm tree upstream. I’m distracted by the sounds. The chirping, the cawing, the horns from the road that break it all up.
Ashleigh breaks my spell, snapping a twig in two and giving it a toss into the water. There’s barely enough of a current to pull it away from where we’re standing. [[She continues on before I can think of an answer.]]
[[Bluebird?]]“Let's wait until we've gotten out a bit further,” I say.
“Wait until what?” she asks.
“I'm getting tired anyway. I guess we'll need to find a place to stay tonight.”
[[“Oklahoma City's not that much further out. That'd probably be the best place to rest up if you need it.”->OKC Motel]]The next morning, I awake to silence, a vacant room.
On the dresser (link-reveal:"there's a note:")[
(text-colour:black)+(background:white)+(text-style:"italic")+(font:"Avant Garde")+(align:"<==")+(box:"===XXXX===")[You're a cute one, Jackson. Hope you find Bluebird after all. Take care!](text-style:"italic")+(font:"Avant Garde")+(align:"=><=")+(text-colour:black)+(background:white)+(box:"===XXXX===")[
xo Ash ox]
(if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length <= 0)[[[She's gone.->TN Library]]](if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length >= 1)[[[She's gone.->She's gone.]]]]The drive hours sped by after that. Eventually, we settle on the motel with the cheapest rate. We pull up to a covered driveway in front of the lobby with an old man at the counter through the window, but no one else in sight. Ashleigh spots an open liquor store across the street.
[[“I’m going to go get us some refreshments!” she shouts as I head inside to check in.->OKC Motel 2]](link:"The traffic sounds continue to whir overhead, the birds, still rushing by.")[They’re babbly sounding like bubbling water. Machines speeding through space and time easily confused for something organic. The same sound the pump would make on an expensive fountain in someone’s backyard. Half natural. Half out of place. The traffic sounds continue to whir overhead, the birds, still rushing by. They’re babbly sounding like bubbling water. Machines speeding through space and time easily confused for something organic. The same sound the pump would make on an expensive fountain in someone’s backyard. Half natural. Half out of place.]
(link:"The low roar of noise ricochets off of the concrete behind us.")[The low roar of noise ricochets off of the concrete behind us. I imagine every car that’s ever passed on this road, all of the cars arriving and then already gone and the barrels of burning oil that sustained each one, what vast quantity would that be? I can almost feel the engines guzzling, pulling up the liquid only to then ignite it. The cars acting in unison, like a supernatural beast with an insatiable thirst, something hellish and unforgiving. I see the metallic transmutation into something alive, with a pulse and fur. They are vehicles to cross into other worlds, other dimensions, like something out of a Greek tragedy, a dark omen during the third act, like birds of prey screaming out overhead, circling something lower than it on the food chain. That constructed pyramid of who devours who. A river of blood and oil, guided by automotive messengers into Hades. The stream becomes viscous and thick with carcasses, discarded leftovers of whatever was once living, things trapped under rubber tires, animals now turned into roadkill and left only as waste. It’s a horror scene. The only problem is it’s one I don’t think Ashleigh can see.]
(link:"I look around me.")[I wonder if I was making sounds or talking aloud. The stream looks placid and like any other water run-off. I try to remember to breathe, feel my hands, remind myself I have a body. I look around me. I wonder if I was making sounds or talking aloud. The stream looks placid and like any other water run-off. I try to remember to breathe, feel my hands, remind myself I have a body.]
(link:"Ashleigh’s picking leaves off of a fallen branch and launching them into the water.")[Ashleigh’s picking leaves off of a fallen branch and launching them into the water. They look like ships sailing by, like a lost brigada of explorers without substantive funding from their conquistador King. I try to regain my footing, my pulse fluctuates between a rapid pitter-patter and a barely thudding drum.]
[[“Ashleigh?” I call out to her, where she’s sitting on the ground.]]She used to sing. She used to sing in a low-pitched warble, several phrases at a time. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ancr5DObEGY"; target="_blank">Do you want to hear her sing?</a>
1 to 2 to 3 short notes, or words, it would be. The intensity would reach climax with harsher chatter, whistles. When she was really angry, that's when she would clack with her bill. The sharp thuds, a crack, like a hand clap.
“Tu-weee, tu-weee,” then a querulous sound. This is how we stayed in touch, or rather, how she stayed in touch with me.
[[I respond back, with a “chittt-chittt.”->She continues on before I can think of an answer.]]She looks up at me. I see no irony in the fact that her tights are now covered in fine powdery sand, the same dirty knees her father punished her for as a child. I try to act normal, like the view in front of us isn’t anything notable or transforming, that it’s stable in its form.
She looks to me. The colors continue to shift into shadows, with nothing animate.
“Nevermind, I thought I saw—”
I roll back up to sit and meet her eyes. Her eyelashes are thick with makeup. A droop of hair surrounds her face. There’s an intent there I haven’t seen before.
“You’re handsome, you know that?”
(link:"“I'm looking for Bluebird.”
[[I turn from her, embarrassed.]]")[“I'm looking for Bluebird.”
“Do you believe you'll find her?”
I try to regain my composure before looking back at her.
“What do you believe in?” I ask.
[[“Survival.”->Kiss]]]“Of course, he wants to come back with us,” Peter says, interjecting, and knocking shoulders with Marisol. “We’re just getting started,” he cracks with a smile.
His assumptions are jovial enough that I half expect him to pull a bottle of wine out of his backpack right now. Before I can think of an excuse he butts in again.
“I mean, where else do you really have to be right now?”
(link:"“Sure, I guess. I mean why not?” I reply.")[“Sure, I guess. I mean why not?” I reply.
We all tromp down the path, the light is fading fast as we twist our way through trees, using careful footing on the path back to Peter’s room. Well, at least my footing is careful. In descending order of caution, it might be me, then Peter, then Marisol. His hands are animated, he seems to be telling a wild story about his adventures abroad, and a girl the two of them used to know from back home. I catch snippets of it as I constantly trip over fallen branches as we pass far up the hill into the woods.
“Where are you staying?” I ask.
“Peter’s moved his stuff into one of the studios up the hill,” Marisol adds, “or rather dropped it all there isn't trying to leave his nest anytime soon.”
“What about you? Where’s your hideout here?” he asks me.
“I have a room over in the building overlooking the lake,” I say, pointing. "I didn’t know there were other options."
“Good to know,” he adds.
“Peter doesn’t necessarily know how to seperate art from life,’” Marisol explains, giving his shoulder a nudge.
“Well, Mari, I just want to give you an inviting place to sing, give you your own little roost to make you feel at home,” he argues, playfully.
[[“You’re a singer?” I ask her. She nods back with a smile.->BB Studio 2]]
]They’re laughing and all wrestling around in the water. I’ve never seen people so excited to be swimming.
“Yeah! Come on in!” The man’s voice echoes Marisol’s, which echoes Ashleigh’s. Their voices call me closer and closer, his voice creates lassos around my ears.
I’m supposed to just strip down and expose myself to these perfect strangers? Maybe if they stay away from me for long enough I can endure this.
“Have you met my brother yet?” she asks, breaking me out of whatever trance I had put myself in.
[[“I don’t think so,” I respond.]]“Jackson, this is Peter. I thought you two might hit it off,” she says as she glides on her back, turning over as her head comes close to bobbing down under water. She swims over to Peter and pushes down on his shoulders. They’re both so handsome in this idealized moment. I can tell the resemblance now.
I stand at the edge of the lake, that nebulous, undefined thing that both expands and retreats. Peter and Marisol’s movements in the water cause the lake to splash at my feet. Standing there I feel a huge divide, as if I’m standing on the edge of one planet with a whole new horizon in front of me. The ozone and the atmosphere are different over there—there’s joy, there’s belonging, there’s community and acceptance and there’s something alluring and erotic about it.
I take a deep breath, I hesitate, before realizing the faster I do this, the easier it is.
[[I drop bottoms, flip off my top and attempt to hide in the dark of the moisture.->Decide to swim]]
[[I can't do it. I wave them off and walk away.]]The water erases the lines between my body, myself, and this place. The neighboring heartbeats make waves through the lake. There’s a charm in the man’s eyes next to her.
I sink down, one footstep at a time, slowly submerging myself in the cool waves.
Marisol plays with some sort of lake sludge, long grasses coming up from the bottom. She’s diving deep down, feet floundering out of sync in the air, scooping up the silt like some sort of lanky sea otter. When she rises, her face is completely covered with mud, not terrifying like some sort of monster, but fantastic like she’s been melded into the earthy floor below, erasing divisions, like swamp thing or some other amazing half-woman, half mutant super hero. It’s like the opposite of The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
As I swim near to her, I can see her whole head drippy with mud, her hair cracked with deep lines of dirt, turning her head into rows of crops or fault lines. As I get to her I’m blinded by the bounce of light on the top of her head. This must be rich soil, there are flecks of gold and silver, mica illuminating the gooey sheen of brown and black. She’s become her own mythological creature, both otherworldly and of this world, not just relegated to one place. The earth goddess who’s come down to remove her own man-made pedestal, the cyborg who wants to play in the dirt. The super hero whose fatal flaw wasn’t a trait of her own, but one ascribed to her, like Cassandra, merely, yet dangerously, that other’s wouldn’t listen to her.
“Here, take some, Jack,” she announces, anointing my head with a handful of mud. It spills over my ears, filling my head with water and soil and decomposing grass, all the things needed for things to grow forth and spill out sprouts.
(link:"“And peace be with you,” I mutter, to a chorus of laughters, to a round of “Ahs,” and “Oms,” and “Amens,” and “Oh mans.”")[“And peace be with you,” I mutter, to a chorus of laughters, to a round of “Ahs,” and “Oms,” and “Amens,” and “Oh mans.”
The sun traces the sky, arching and rolling over us, slowly returning home. The air gets cooler against my face, the elements snug around me, holding me in place. The light falls square on Marisol, illuminating the trees behind her. Her brother is beautiful, his hair falling down around his face, wet curls dripping in their placid hue. There’s a chill that traces up my spine almost like a touch. I jump for a second thinking there’s someone behind me when there’s not.
“I’m getting cold, maybe we should head in.”
Marisol walks out onto the land, between chattering teeth, her tan skin covered with bumps from the contrasting temperature. I guess the day has passed before any of us expected, my stomach finally realizing it’s empty, another product of time. My muscles tighten, I notice they’ve been spent in a way that only comes from the expenditures of fun, the excitement imploring me to move in ways I hadn’t remembered since I was a child.
“Yeah, good idea, we should pack up.”
Peter eyes me, the flecks of yellow surrounding his pupils, slowly transforming into a burnt amber in the shadows. He’s elegant in a way you don’t expect men to be, but wish for.
We slowly paddle our bodies back to shore, hands lapping, the sense of fatigue, however lively, becoming felt. I’m still abuzz with enjoyment to the point that I forget my plan to either paddle ahead or hang back so I’m not exposed to them as I’m coming out of the water, at least not directly. I was the kid who was traumatized by my shorts falling off jumping in the pool, exposed beyond control, not even chuckling at the surprise. I avoided locker rooms like the plague, always running for a bathroom stall to hide in, even as I peeked out at the other boys, secretly longing for that freeness of desire, longing, touch.
After shaking the water droplets off of me, I slip my black jeans back on and crinkle my boxers into an undecipherable ball. I swing my sweatshirt over my shoulders, allowing the rest of my body to dry on the way back. My socks are already squishing, full of silt. I wonder what Jim’s been up to in my absence. Maybe we’ve missed the dinner bell, I can’t tell.
(if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length <= 1)[[[“I need to go find him.”->I can't do it. I wave them off and walk away.]]]
(if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length >= 1)[[[“Do you want to come back to the room with us? Peter’s stockpiled a ton of wine.”->BB Studio 1]]
Marisol tries to sell me on this point.
]](link:"I rush up ahead through people walking, there are people scattered about everywhere.")[I rush up ahead through people walking, there are people scattered about everywhere. A few faces I recognize here and there, all flit away before I can reach them. Students, and a few instructors march ahead with banners and signs, nothing I can make out, no wording I can read or anything, except for the word (text-colour:black)+(background:white)[''SAVE'']. Two people are stringing a large expanse of fabric across the main doorway, people raising ladders up high overhead.]
(link:"In the sky, elevated rungs break up the air above, dissecting the clouds that pop through, framing and organizing the atmosphere into parcels.")[In the sky, elevated rungs break up the air above, dissecting the clouds that pop through, framing and organizing the atmosphere into parcels. There’s smoke coming from the flagpole. There’s smoke coming from the flagpole! I notice someone climbing up it, just below where the ladder rungs lead my eyes.]
(link:"The smoke isn’t coming from the flag, but rather a cigarette in a person’s hand who is climbing up it.")[ It’s Fielding, of course it is. He’s the only person I know of here that would be simultaneously monkeying up a pole, hanging a flag, and smoking a cigarette in the most demure way possible, as if it was nothing.]
[[“Fielding!” I yell up, cupping my hands around my mouth, trying to make my words go further. “Where’s Jim?”->“Where’s Jim?”]]He simply points to the kitchen, resting the cigarette in his mouth as he answers, lest he should drop it. The kitchen. Of course. I salute him in response. He just nods, preoccupied with the flag strings like some sort of marionette master. No one’s trailing up to the kitchen, so I can break through and get out of the crowd. I half run, thinking that makes a difference.
When I get to the kitchen, I practically slam the doors open as if there was an actual fire and not just a man smoking up a flagpole. Jim’s standing at the end of one of the long utility counters, shoulders sagged, his back turned to me. A length of butcher paper is rolled across the entire length.
“Hey buddy, I was looking for you.”
His spirits are dampened. It’s surprising compared to what I’m used to seeing in him. He’s been scrawling big words across the wide swath of the banner.
“I ended up, I was at the lake, it doesn’t matter right now. What’s going on?”
(link:"“We might be losing our lease.”")[“We might be losing our lease.”
“Our what?” I can’t tell if this is more or less shocking than anything I could have guessed. “What does that mean?” I probe him.
“We might lose the school,” his words knocking me in their wake.
I had just come to terms with myself here, the ultimate shape shifting of my mind. The impossibility of my own rationality. Where would I go from here? I had run out of land, tired of running. I had accounted for no Plan B. Jim looks up at me, direct, straight in the eye.
“Are you okay?”
I’m scared of what I’m about to say next. My movements feel like mimicry. I’d practiced the words on my tongue, but never once was able to speak them to anyone, not even to Ashleigh.
[[“Jim, look man, I’ve been seeing things, a lot of crazy things..."]]]"...they seem real, but they’re unreal at the same time. It’s terror, it’s terrifying.”
(link:"“Like the future?” he asks me, dropping the banner at once, full attention now on my presence in the room.")[“Like the future?” he asks me, dropping the banner at once, full attention now on my presence in the room.
“No, I think it’s from the past. Dead people. Soldiers, specifically. Some sort of bombing, an explosion in Oklahoma City. Last night I saw Marisol turn into a bird.”
I can hardly maintain my breathing, I feel hot and clammy at the same time.
He stands silently across from me. Black ink flows from the felt nub of the marker he holds in his hand onto his fingertips. I can see the faint print of whorls.
(link:"“It's made me feel better, having you here.”")[“It's made me feel better, having you here.”
“Why would it make you feel better?” I ask. He looks taken aback at the question.
“Why wouldn’t it? We’re friends, Jackson. Remember? I’ve missed you buddy.”
“But you guys have built this all with your own hands from the ground up. I’m just a visitor here. I’m not really one of you.”
(link:"“Look, this place belongs to you as much as anybody else. If we spent all our time trying to determine who belongs here and who doesn’t, I don’t think there’d be anyone left.”")[“Look, this place belongs to you as much as anybody else. If we spent all our time trying to determine who belongs here and who doesn’t, I don’t think there’d be anyone left.”
He looks at me earnestly, letting the silence of the moment blanket us for a second. He isn’t trying to cover this up, the meaning laying in the pause.
“Don’t disappear on me again, you hear? You’re a good guy, Jackson. I don't want to lose you.”
The words hang in the air, waving around like flags suspended on poles. I look over at Jim, the entirety of all this soaking in. The weight of all that was constantly at stake.
“It’s been a hard few years,” I say, wanting to break into tears, but holding back, resisting.
“I know it has, Jack, I know.” He grabs me fiercely, protectively, his face burrowed in the top of my head.
[[“What happens if we lose the school?”]]
]]]“We keep going,” he says immediately, letting go of me. “We keep going. We might have to close down for a few months, but it’ll be temporary, you know. We’ll reopen. We’re already looking at another site two miles up the road. And if they try to kick us out of that location we’ll move up another two miles, and if that doesn’t work we’ll go north five more miles, and so on and so on. We’ll spread, we’ll head in opposite directions, alternate directions, separate paths. We’ll keep going north until we end up at the bottom of the world. We’ll keep going as long as we need, until we maybe end up right back where we started. We’ll convene again. The world isn’t flat, you know, there’s no beginning or end to this anymore. We’ll keep going as long as we need. You’re a part of this now, and you’re welcome to stay as long as you need.”
I feel like this is the part of the story where our Thelma and Louise hand grab should come in, but there’s no certain death, no utter demise. [[No matter what, something lives on, even if this place doesn’t, even if we don’t.->Epilogue]]“You…don’t have to be any place to be tonight, do you?”
“No, do you?”
“I didn’t know if you were meeting someone,” I say. It comes out more dodgy and anxious sounding than I’d wanted it to.
[[“Not until Friday.”->OKC Motel]]Ashleigh leans over to me. My hands are shaking. We kiss, like two people in the middle of sharing something irrevocable, and I feel alive for the first time since I don’t remember.
(after:5s)[There’s a kind of silence afterward that I can’t describe, like I’d never experienced before. (after:9s)[It sounds more like fullness, like a grand echo that can’t stop reverberating off of us. As if I’m finally realizing some rhythm, some synchronicity, at the same time she’s seeing a little piece of me, like I’m meeting her someplace familiar, some abstract, intimate place. (after:13s)[In that place of our shared silence, I can hear two heartbeats, two pairs of lungs constricting and expanding. (after:17s)[In that dark sky of that young day, there are more than dampened sounds, the muffled shuffles of feet fidgeting, or awkward pauses. That everything is pulsating, bouncing off of one another, blending into one giant pulse.
[[Perhaps with less embarrassment than I would have expected, we settle on a motel a few miles up after we get back in the car.->OKC Motel]]
]]]]The Masonic lodge, part artifact and part city-mandated condemnation, a hollowed shell of a building, has seen better days.
I half-heartedly appreciate the ambiance of this place. The walls, visibly layered with sheets of board and paint look like skin, ready to flake off at any moment. The façade of the building is dated. Now, even if it's been neglected, you can see someone had hoped it would last.
[[Try the door.]]
[[Head back down 21st Ave]]I start to panic. I knew she said she was supposed to meet up with her...sister? Cousin? for some sort of weekend trip. In Nashville. But I didn't think she would leave me like that.
I don't have her phone number. I can't text her, I can't call. I don't have her name, I don't have her last name, I don't have her anything. What can I do?
[[Call Jim.->Jim Call 2]]
(if:(history: where its name contains "Radio on.")'s length >= 1)[[I head to the library accross the street while I try to figure something out.->TN Library]]I hit dial. The phone rings with no answer, goes straight to his voicemail.
He said I was welcome to visit at any point, didn’t he? I had his address, didn’t I?
I thumb through entries in my phone until [[I find his address at Camp Rockmont.->Short drive Nash to Ash]]I drive through the day, I don't stop. I've got motel coffee to fuel me. I pee into an empty water bottle. It takes less time than I expect until I hit a tunnel, there's a tunnel, there's a tunnel, there's the light, and sun, and a tunnel. The trees blur as I speed. [[I roll down 40 to someplace Jim calls home.->BMC Road]]I jiggle the handle. It’s locked.
The lights are off. Clearly no one’s there.
I don’t want to loiter around here. I’m a day early, too many hours late. I got so close, [[but there’s nothing to do but leave.->Head back down 21st Ave]]After a few wrong turns, 21st turns into Hillbrook, or Hillsboro, I can’t tell. The street is filled with cell phone providers, fast food restaurants, a fancy looking mall, but near “Victory Real Estate,” a blue awning—there she is, don’t know how—something called The Bluebird Café.
I notice an empty spot on the side of the street, as if it was waiting for me to come. There’s anticipation in my feet as I get out, I feel my nerves buzzing with joy.
The line snakes back and forth across the hot pavement that’s now littered with cigarette butts and Styrofoam cups. For as tiny as this place appears to be, there’s got to be at least a hundred or more people waiting here that won’t be able to get inside. I have to though. There’s something there—I feel it deep in my skin. She has to be there.
I spend longer than I’d like to admit staring blankly into the empty storefront beside the venue, some shop that looks to have been a carpet emporium at one time, or some sort of store that specialized in coverings. The store beyond it looks to be some sort of upscale baby store, the complete opposite in appearance. Overabundant, overfilled, full of colors, lots of pinks and whites and blues. It scares me—sort of the opposite of the fear of death. The fear that birth was lurking around every corner, that life sprung out and emerged from us uncontrollably, an agency of its own. I had been repulsed by all the excess, all the life-filled celebration—until it was that I saw my name, Jackson, exhibited prominently in a darkened corner of the window display on a row of embroidered terry cloth bibs edged by pastel gingham on the trim.
“That’s it, folks! Show’s full. However, we still have tickets available for next week. You can find the full schedule on our website,” [[a leather vested man announces from the front of the line.->BB Cafe 1]]
[[There's no way I'm getting in. I should just move on. I should call Jim.->Jim Call 2]]In Nashville, it’s like the city is carved out of denim. It's easy to imagine guitar riffs skating down streets and alleyways and every place I pass has its own voice.
The city is full of voices, all sorts of them, ones from the future, some of which have travelled from back in time. It’s confusing—it creates a jumble in my head. There are songs and melodies coming in and out, real and imagined, some repeat and some I think I sing myself. There’s no telling. It’s a bit maddening, but it’s beautiful too, a mixture of sounds and calls I paddle through gently as [[I ogle street signs and numbers to find 2101 21st.->Doric Lodge]]
The more I look at the map, the more the system of freeways seems to be one spun around another, a big spider web or bloodshot eye, a circle in the center for the pupil, ever watching. It’s like the whole city system needs medicated drops to lubricate the bursting veins, to keep the inflammation down.I take my seat at the Christmas light covered bar, shoulder-to-shoulder with two other men. The place is packed with tourists, but these two look to be old-timers, boots, belt buckles, the whole get up. The one to my right nods at me, as he sucks on his beer.
“Where you from, Lucky?”
“On a road trip, headed towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
“Best part of the whole goddamn country, besides here 'course.”
“The Blue Ridge Mountains can make a grown man cry with how pretty it is, that's why.”
“Good to hear, I’ve seen my share of ugly on this trip.”
“A lot of us have I suppose.”
(link:"I notice a military tattoo, peaking out from under his sleeve. A sunburnt chest under his plaid neckline.")[I notice a military tattoo, peaking out from under his sleeve. A sunburnt chest under his plaid neckline.
“You travel much?” I ask.
“Oh, I’ve been all over the place. Hell, I knew how to hook up an RV before I could walk.”
The waitress comes by to remind me that there’s a minimum I have to order. I check out the menu, the sparse offerings I could afford.
(link:"“Can I buy you a drink?” the plaid man offers.")[“Can I buy you a drink?” the plaid man offers.
“Sure, why not.”
His hairy arm brushes mine as he reaches for his wallet. Was he hitting on me? That was the last thing I would have expected from a random encounter in Nashville.
“So there’s no special lady that wanted to join you out here on the road?”
“Nope, no girlfriend if that’s what you’re asking. Solo trip.”
I have to remind myself these things. Have to pretend that I’m back where I started, that there was no one I had met.
“I was in the military, I understand. At least you didn’t have to get drafted to find that out.”
The waitress comes out with a fresh round of beers, fries and wings for the row ahead.
“Well, cheers,” I say to him. “And thanks for the drink.”
“R.E., you wanna start a tab like usual?”
“Sure, love. Card's here.”
(link:"I look down on the bar to embossed silver name stamped in plastic:")[I look down on the bar to embossed silver name stamped in plastic:
(text-colour:grey)+(background:navy)+(font:"Courier")[Reginold Evanander Lee]
He smiles before cheersing my bottle with a hardy clunk. The announcer interrupts us as he introduces the opening performer and [[the first twang breaks something inside of me.->BB Cafe 3]]]]]I meet her back in the parking lot minutes after registering and moving the car around back, ironically similar to how we met in the first place.
“What room are we?” she asks as I open the trunk and haul my backpack and her slim duffle bag out of the car.
“101. What’d you get?” I ask, pointing to the white plastic grocery bag in her hands. She pulls out a comically large bottle of whiskey and gives it a triumphant shake in the air.
“Time to celebrate!” she shouts, as she also reveals a jumbo-sized bag of BBQ-flavored potato chips. She acts like this is a rare occasion, like a birthday or a housewarming party, neither of which matches my feelings about the circumstances.
[[We find the right door number. It looks like the same crummy motel room I stayed in by myself a few nights ago.->OKC Motel 3]]“I’m going to go get us some ice,” she says excitedly before I can hand her the key card. I set our bags on the bed and catch a glimpse of her skirt out the door as she hurries away with the standard ice bucket that comes with the room.
I wonder if she noticed there’s only one bed—the old man at the registration desk said there weren’t any different configurations available. There’s a small couch against the wall by the window. Worse comes to worst, I’ll take it if it makes her feel better. I wish her safe at home here.
The plastic grocery bag from the corner store sits in front of me, tossed haphazardly on the dresser, as if it’s staring back, watching all. Like we are locked in a standstill, whoever blinks first loses. I lose.
I walk over to the sink and find two plastic cups enclosed in their own protective seals and carefully unwrap them, preparing them for our makeshift happy hour. The bottle is a relief like I wouldn’t have expected. [[I crack the foil seal off the top and take a few preemptive shots for safe measure.->OKC Motel 4]]Ashleigh comes rushing back inside with ice overflowing past the lip of the container, lid in the other hand, as I lower the bottle from my mouth.
“Honey? I’m home!” she announces, still maintaining the same jokey demeanor. She removes the clear plastic bag of ice from the bucket and gives it a quick twist around and around, spinning it until it’s tightly sealed.
The spinning bag of glistening cubes dazzles and distracts me in its disco ball sheen. The light bounces off the wet surface, refracted like a stained glass window. She lowers the bulky, plastic-wrapped form to the bed and claws both sides with her fingernails, trying to crush it up.
“It all came out in one big clump,” she explains to me as she massages it.
She gives the frozen mass one final squeeze, puncturing the bag and knocking the bucket over on the comforter. Crushed cubes spill over the carpet, like a child’s marble game got loose. At least she freed them from their monolithic entrapment, I guess.
“Gah!” she cries out, laughing at herself, a bit startled, neither of us expecting the geyser-like explosion of frozen water.
“I’ll get some more, don’t worry about it,” I call out to her.
There’s something demoralizing about seeing her attempt to rescue the frozen slivers from the cigarette-burned floor, specks of carpet fuzz and hair stuck to each one. [[I grab the bucket from the dresser and head back out the door, mimicking her previous actions.->OKC Motel 5]]In the hall on the way to the ice machine, I stumble a bit, I hadn’t realized how fast the alcohol hit me. I guess I must have drunk more than I realized. The walk is short and long at the same time. My feet feel clunky and heavy. A few rooms down, there’s a sign indicating the ice machine’s presence right around the corner. I turn, following the arrow.
I hold the button down on the tired machine that I’m guessing is older than both Ashleigh and me. The tan plastic creaks under the pressure of my hand and nothing but a few grumbles come out. Damn. I assumed this was the same one Ashleigh had used earlier. Motels usually had one on every floor though, right? I turn back around the corner and head up the stairs. I notice they are awkwardly covered in a weird maroon AstroTurf that probably hasn’t been produced in the last forty years. With each step, my legs feel more and more tired, my body taking every last effort to exert itself, as if the added friction was too much to handle. I get to the top step and turn my head. Everything looks exactly the same, just as I’d expected.
The same pictures hang on the walls in the hallway, the same old appliance sits at the end of the corridor exactly replicated. That’s wrong, right? Isn’t the unspoken rule not to design things to be too similar? Wasn’t there supposed to be some illusion of variance, or customization, or choice? Something must be off. I started in Room 101, walked down the hall to the ice machine, turned a corner, walked upstairs, and here I am. But the room number I’m standing in front of is 111. [[Why would two floors have the exact same numbers, both odd, both starting with ones?->OKC Motel 6]](link:"I’m probably just drunkenly mistaking where I am.")[I’m probably just drunkenly mistaking where I am. Upstairs will be the ice machine that works. And I’ll mix Ashleigh some whiskey and ginger ale and then we’ll drift off to sleep.]
(link:"I head back up and count my way down to the machine.")[I head back up and count my way down to the machine. 101, 103, 105, 107, 109, 111. No even numbers, no designation of what floor I’m on. Whatever, probably some weird quirk or they ran out of twos to affix to the doors. But this is a decidedly quirk-less place to stay, as all large motel chains are and I don’t underestimate the value of having a place to stay anymore.]
(link:"I trip back past the landscape painting with the same cracked frame as the floor below and count down.")[I trip back past the landscape painting with the same cracked frame as the floor below and count down. 107, 109, 111. Back to the ice machine. The same dark, ripe stain sits under its legs, discolored enough it could be a tear in the floor. I smack at the button and deep rumblings come from far back behind the metal grate where the bucket sits. It sounds as if the ice is travelling a far distance from a deep cold cave underground, thousands of miles away, lurching and scraping itself through the earth’s crust, rather than a separate compartment for an engineered water freezer. The cubes fly out all at once, after holding the button down for what feels like eternity. I catch enough of them though—evidently it can’t be the same exact machine.]
(link:"Ashleigh must be wondering where I am by now if I’ve wandered up and down the stairs multiple times.")[ Still doesn’t explain the room numbers however. In front of Room 101 I pause for a second. Should I try the door to the room that’s marked as mine, but clearly isn’t? What if there was another Ashleigh in there, another me? I decide it’s something I’d rather not know and I motion my foot towards the first step down, down those odd, odd numbered doors, and [[head back to the original room assigned to us.->OKC Motel 8]]
]I feel like I’m falling. Taking the stairs one by one, my balance is fragile. I try not to spill the sweaty cubes all over again. Then finally, I’m back on the ground. I turn and face the door, the first floor, Room 101. I know this is the room I came from, right? Where have I been, what’s happened to my mental state? The yellowed, incandescent lighting overhead doesn’t help and only reinforces how unable I am to sense the passing of time. My breath catches in my lungs, I hold the door handle tightly, the metal presses into my hand. My veins constrict as it opens with a sudden crack.
(link:"“Where have you been?” a voice calls out when I open the door.")[“Where have you been?” a voice calls out when I open the door.
Ashleigh’s back exactly where she had been sitting when I left. I’ve fallen through no slip in time. I’m comforted to see her.
“I went to get us some more ice.”
(link:"“Silly, but we already have a whole bucket here.”")[“Silly, but we already have a whole bucket here.”
Ashleigh gestures to the coffee table in front of the loveseat. The bin’s full, the plastic bag lining it is neatly folded over the rim twice. Two untouched glasses, no marks, no nothing sit plainly beside it. No puddles on the floor from what was spilt before.
Suddenly, I feel a lot less drunk, like I’m a tub full of bathwater and the plug got knocked loose. All the alcohol in my system escapes me, for better or for worse.
“Where did you get that other bucket from?” she asks me. I don’t know though because now there are two.
“I thought we could use some more ice,” I reply, not knowing what else to say.
I set the bucket down on the table, embarrassed by the redundancy and sit down beside her on the couch. Without even touching her, I can feel the heat coming off of her legs in contrast to the chilled bucket I was holding for however long. I don’t know how long. I feel her eyes searching my body for signs of what’s occurred.
(if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length >= 1)[[[“Do you want me to take the loveseat?”->OKC Motel 9]]](if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length <= 0)[[[“Do you want me to take the loveseat?”->OKC Motel 9 ALT]]]
]]“We can share the bed if you want.”
She’s so light that when she slips into bed, I barely feel the mattress move. I don’t know how to tell her what I’ve experienced. It feels like a wager, it’s always a guessing game, a tricky estimate as to whether or not it would be better to keep something inside. There’s a pen fenced off inside of me where all my secrets can roam unharmed. But it’s also like the inside of a four by four cubicle, a restless place not suitable as living quarters. It’s the internal factory farm of unusual experiences, as if they kept breeding and inbreeding themselves exponentially. It felt as if the DNA that was being replicated soon intertwined with what was experienced.
(link:"“Are you alright?” her voice floats by as she joins me.")[“Are you alright?” her voice floats by as she joins me.
“A lot of weird things keep happening, stuff I haven’t experienced before.”
Her eyes have gotten smaller, almost to the point that I can’t tell if she’s still awake or not. I lower my voice.
Ashleigh leans in closer to me. I feel her warmth bristle on my skin, and the hairs on my arm catch the fabric of her shirt. I look towards her, embarrassed by the intimacy of the situation. Shadows fall across her face, obscuring the whole. It makes it easier to deal with how exposed I feel. She rustles around in the comforter a bit, pulling at the edges. The sheets bunch around my ankles and I try to shake them off. The lamplight pours from behind her, outlining her, and shining. She looks like an angel in a Renaissance painting, especially when artists still used male bodies to model as the female form out of piety, the church laws and religious rulings that guarded over which bodies were deemed okay to be seen undressed. A random fact now only was lost on a late-night motel rendezvous.
“Hey, mind if I turn out the light?” she asks as she rolls towards the table lamp on the nightstand.
[[I nod in silent agreement.->OKC Motel 10]]
]]I can see her faint outline rolling back towards me as my eyes attempt to adjust. The light pollution from the brightly lit parking lot outside sneaks through cracks in the curtains, brightening lines on her face, slowly. The rods and cones in my eyes have trouble adapting to the darkness. I can make out the curve of her shoulders. I imagine the soft slope of her spine, contorted so that she’s rounded in towards me.
All my other senses are heightened now from the depravation of sight. My eyes dance around in their sockets, searching for something to hang onto. I feel the faintest brush of her body as she snuggles in closer to me, as she tucks more folds of the comforter over her shape and between her legs.
“I’m not attracted to women,” I blurt out, uncontrollably, impulsively.
“Well that’s convenient,” she responds back without pause and turns her head over to the other side of the pillow.
“Ash—wait,” I reach for her.
(link:"“C'mon, give it up, Jackson.”")[“C'mon, give it up, Jackson.”
“I figured I’d have the same problem with you. You’re exactly like the others. Also, not very ‘attracted’ to the feminine types. I get it, you think I'm a freak or something? But thanks at least for confirming my gender identity.”
[[I feel guilty and grasping. Was I already losing her before I even knew if I wanted someone to get near to me?->OkC Motel 11]]
]My brain floods with adrenaline, dopamine, all the chemicals used to describe attraction and fear. I already want to go back in time, even back to earlier in the evening when there was something shared between us, where my desperation created something beautiful rather than the paralyzing aloneness of an empty drive. I want her on me, our breath intertwined, her calmness, her understanding, her carefree benevolence. The years of scars she seemingly carries without concern. I feel my throat tightening up, the emotions I’ve been pushing down crack at the back of my larynx, my sinuses sting from tears pushed back. My arms feel cemented to my sides.
“Stop,” I cry out, my voice a sharp call, a newborn screaming for air.
I try to keep my heart from pounding, to concentrate on anything but this moment. She stares back at me and now that I’m looking straight at her so closely I notice how long her eyelashes are. They create a shadowy pattern underneath her eyes, dozens of lengthy silhouettes dance on the crease as if they were specifically arranged to look that way.
(link:"My voice is a dull undertone, so quiet that I could dismiss my own words depending on her response.")[My voice is a dull undertone, so quiet that I could dismiss my own words depending on her response.
(link:"“I really want to kiss you.”")[“I really want to kiss you.”
(link:"She turns into me, unemotionally. I try to focus on everything else in the room except her.")[She turns into me, unemotionally. I try to focus on everything else in the room except her. There’s a buzzing, some sort of droning buzz. Is it from the floodlights in the parking lot? Maybe the ice machine on this floor has snapped itself back on, rattling its way back to life, back into my head, nagging me and reminding me not to forget what happened. Even Ashleigh’s breathing sounds multiplied, not like an actual breath coming in and out, but the echo of a breath that occurred a few minutes before. It’s small but sublime, somehow epic in impact, even if not in volume.
(link:"She pulls in closer to me, and I try to mirror her movement, to move towards her, but my muscles stay locked in place. I’m like a wild animal caught in a trap.")[She pulls in closer to me, and I try to mirror her movement, to move towards her, but my muscles stay locked in place. I’m like a wild animal caught in a trap. Like something else is in control. Not her, not me, not anything I had ever touched with my hands or seen with my own eyes. Her nails pull down my arm, finding my palm buried deep into the mattress. Feeling her, the heat from her body and my senses feel electrocuted, like I’m on fire, a giant incinerator, the kind they use for trash or cremation of dead bodies. A pool of sweat collects on the side of my head where it touches the pillow. She pulls in closer to me, and I try to mirror her movement, to move towards her, but my muscles stay locked in place. I’m like a wild animal caught in a trap. Like something else is in control. Not her, not me, not anything I had ever touched with my hands or seen with my own eyes.
(link:"Her nails pull down my arm, finding my palm buried deep into the mattress.")[Her nails pull down my arm, finding my palm buried deep into the mattress. Feeling her, the heat from her body and my senses feel electrocuted, like I’m on fire, a giant incinerator, the kind they use for trash or cremation of dead bodies. A pool of sweat collects on the side of my head where it touches the pillow.
(link:"I feel her lean into me, waiting for my response.")[I feel her lean into me, waiting for my response. Tortured by my own lack of decision, I slide further down the bed, avoiding direct contact, unsure of what this anatomy has in store for me, avoiding anything that feels too flowery, too girly, too soft. I’m turned on by her presence, but there’s too much unknown. I try to fight against it, I close my eyes and pretend it’s not there, that she’s not there, that I won’t become erect and want to devour her body, or feel her cock pressed between my hands if she still has one.
(link:"I close my eyes and try to shut out this whole night, all my fear, all the mistakes I made in my brutishness, the masculinity I copied and desired.")[I close my eyes and try to shut out this whole night, all my fear, all the mistakes I made in my brutishness, the masculinity I copied and desired. I hide in the solid blackness underneath eyelids pursed and tight. She grabs at me and her mouth meets my mouth instinctually, the musk of her breath welcoming. As we touch each other, ourselves, however elliptically, as fumbling and avoidant my movements are I feel myself get hard. And before I can attempt to forgo this whole night I’m plucking hair away from her lips and dipping my hands into the part of her ribcage that still feels boyish and tough.
I don’t think I sleep at all that night even once I came. I lay awake, burning up, smoldering as I noticed her body relaxed into place, her breathing start to shallow unconsciously as she sleeps. [[I stare at the clock and watch the hours count down.->Motel morning]]
]]]]]]]The morning came much sooner than I expected it. (if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length >= 1)[My arm still wrapped around the small of her back, laying in a hazy half-doze. The sun barges in furiously, like a parent hell-bent on preventing teen intercourse after coming back from a weekend away.]
I can hear the rest of the world getting on with the day outside. I feel restless trying to lay there in stillness with Ashleigh limp and entombed deep between the pillows.
I get up to make some lukewarm amber-colored coffee with the plastic, plug-in machine in the bathroom, watery and half-assed at best.
Curious, I peer out the window at our view of the parking lot, the strip mall already littered with cars full of families, the children refusing to put on their seatbelts.
There’s a divider blockading one parking lot from another, the big box store across from the motel. From down here, looking straight on, the pavement looks enormous, like a big monument, but to what, I’m not sure. Expansiveness? Capacity? Flatness? It’s something that I can’t connect to. I don’t have “NOT OF THIS WORLD” and “FREEDOM ISN'T FREE” stickers on the back of my car. Crossing seems perilous enough. The cars have gun racks.
I make sure to close the door without a sound and go down to the ground floor. The stairwell spits me out on the edge of the hotel parking lot grounds, and [[I stand there for a moment before making my move.->TMV Lot 1]]I feel my stomach squeezing inside me—I need food.
When we look up what’s near there’s a listing of about eight different congregations under “Nearest Churches,” combinations of the words “Christ” and “Faith” and “First.” I couldn’t have come up with that many permutations. At the bottom of the map I see that the nearest diner is .5 miles away, at MacArthur Blvd and 3rd Street.
The storefronts up ahead look nice enough, with a post office, a used bookstore, a thrift shop, but a lot are out of business too. There’s a hardware store that, ironically, looks out of repair.
[[Check out the bookstore.]]
[[Check out the thrift shop.]]
[[Head towards the diner.]]There’s a bookstore buried entirely in a fine layer of dust, a rack of tourist postcards yellowed at the edges. What were the images trying to sell this place as? It’s hard to make out through the window. The photos that tried to build a legacy to the rest of the world now aren’t even visible.
Books line the window, some have fallen over, concealing their titles. Copies of //Moby Dick// and //Huckleberry Finn// peer out from the display, the words like hazy ghosts trying to gaze through thick fog, trapped behind glass, monumentalized, but not touchable. I imagine it’s only these two stories looking out over this town, as if two books by two dead guys were all that defined a place. It’s impossible, a scary thought, a congregation of people bookended by two stories, all of their own experiences playing second fiddle to The Grand Narrative. It’s a bit scary. Oh, nevermind. Now I can make out more titles, and see multiple copies of The Shining close to the back wall, by the cash register. One seemingly has a bookmark peeking out towards the middle.
We continue down the sidewalk, reading the storefront names overhead as we walk. First World Books. Atlas Hardware. A barbershop named Edward Scissorhands. The barbershop is still in business. I guess it’s the proof of a good name.
[[Check out the thrift shop.]]
[[Head towards the diner.]] “Ooh! Can we go in here?” Ash asks, almost like I’m her father. Although nothing's stopping her, the question was more of a statement.
She darts into the thrift store, and heads straight to the women’s section excited at the prospects of new clothes. There isn’t anything I can think of that I need, and find myself browsing the home goods section, of all places. A large black woman with gray hair and a silver cross around her neck shines a smile towards us from the front of the store. I give a distant nod, realizing (link:"I should have checked what kind of organization ran this place.")[I should have checked what kind of organization ran this place.
The collection of kitsch and knick-knacks is nothing mind-blowing by any stretch of the imagination. Some weird mugs that have warnings about lead paint, a pile of broken saucers. An electrical appliance that I can honestly say I can’t figure out the use for, but a sticky note taped to it says it works.
I rifle through the shelf, disregarding torn placemats and novelty decorations. In the corner sits a framed cross-stitch of a robed, long-haired man riding on a donkey. In his hand he holds a cup of coffee. (link:"I turn it over for an explanation.")[
On the brown paper backing it’s inscribed in blue ballpoint pen:
(text-colour:navy)+(background:white)+(text-style:"italic")+(font:"Avant Garde")+(align:"<==")+(box:"=XXX=")[“Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.”]And then below:(text-colour:navy)+(background:white)+(text-style:"italic")+(font:"Avant Garde")+(align:"=><=")+(box:"=XXX=")[To: Jimmy
Love, Grandma Nancy]
I turn it back over and inspect the square stiches again. Jesus looks awfully cross-eyed in the geometric needlepoint, but I see the resemblance now.]
I walk back up to the front. Ashleigh’s returning from the curtained dressing stall, slumped and shorter than usual.
“It didn’t fit,” she sighs, clutching the wad of colorful fabric as I head towards the counter.
“How much is this?” I ask the gray haired woman behind the counter, holding up the frame.
“Oh, that? That’s a dollar.”
I rifle through my pockets and gather up change. She rings me up even though the process of pushing elaborate buttons schemes doesn’t seem appropriate for such a price.
“Would you like to make a donation to homeless youth with your purchase today?”
“No, thank you,” I answer.
Ashleigh’s already out the door before I can respond.
[[Check out the bookstore.]]
[[Head towards the diner.]]]After some confusion from the map, we cave in and have to ask for directions.
Outside the store there’s a short man wearing a beautiful bolero tie, a majestic silver eagle holding a giant piece of obsidian. His boots look nice, but his shirt is worn, with a printed design harkening back to the 90s: geometric patterns of maroon, teal, and tan. His jeans are Wranglers, but no handkerchief sticks out from the pocket. His shiny chestnut hair is slicked back tightly.
“Hey man, do you know if Dave’s Third Street Diner is down at the end of the street?”
“No, it moved,” he says slowly. “It’s on Main Street,” which sounds a bit more like “Man Street” with his accent.
“Dave’s Third Street Diner is on Main Street?” I reiterate back, unable to get over the irony.
“Yes,” he affirms. “They lost their rent. Too expensive.”
We maze our way over to the restaurant and eat quickly, [[before getting back on the road.->Drive on.]]"Sure, I guess. Only if it's comfortable for you, though."
I'm too tired to care. She tucks into the bed as I wrestle into some sort of serpintine 'S' position with the lumpy cushions.
"Jackson?" I hear softly, but my body already feels paralyzed by REM, and [[I quickly fade out.->Motel morning]]It's 8 hours, 9 hours, 10 hours, I lose track. We make our way over imaginary lines and real surfaces, thought form borders with real consequences. Memphis passes by, then a city with the same name as me.
Another motel, another state. The blur of the day, or days. I go through the motions, the lobby, the check in.
“Hey, is there are WiFi password for the motel?”
Before she turns her back to me, the curly haired manager points a long shiny fingernail [[towards paper print out in a plastic frame on the counter:->Go MotelUSA Sign]]Select WiFi Network:
(dropdown: bind $q, "GoMotelUSA557", "GoMOTelUSA558","goMotelUSA559","GoatMotelUSA559")
(set: $LonghornsBurntOrange to "goSteelers")
(if: $LonghornsBurntOrange is "goSteelers")[[[I don't think it's going to work...]]]
(else:)[[[I don't think it's going to work...]]]
]}We pass out together on the bed. I still feel the movement of the car rocking. My wrists and hands stiff from the wheel. (if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length >= 1)[I reach for her shoulder. She pulls at my belt. The awkwardness has melted away. [[We know how our bodies work together now.->Dresser Note]]] (if:(history: where its name contains "Kiss")'s length <= 0)[I feel her digging underneath the covers, [[but I'm too tired to even get under the comforter.->Dresser Note]]]The crowd starts to thin and my heart sinks. I don’t want to take no for an answer. Why was I here? It called to me. What was I doing? Seeking something tht meant something, anything.
People ahead are nodding, people are falling back and crisscrossing the parking lot, taking last minute pictures before walking away. I loiter around the parking lot, not knowing what to do with myself as most of the line thins its way into oblivion, or at least to their Fords parked out around back.
The cowboy vested man comes back outside with a clipboard, consulting the bouncer who had the messy work of shooing away the line. I ask a couple next to me what’s going on. The man wears shining aviators that bounce light right back at me as he responds, piercing me with his reflection.
“Said something about if you won, from the sounds of it.”
The woman next to him nods along as if she wasn’t listening.
“Who won? Won what?” I ask.
The crowd continues to peel away as the man with the cowboy vest further negotiates with the people waiting. People continue to look behind them, shake their heads in response.
A middle-aged woman with long nails, grips my shoulder like a piercing vice, causing me to give a slight jerk away. She lowers her cigarette as I turn around to face her.
“Boy, he said up there they got one more spot, I think it might be yours.”
She has a flirtatious demeanor that makes me doubt that she's picking up on my sexual preference.
“Why me? There’s dozens of people waiting.”
“No one else wants to separate, everyone else here’s in twos,” she explains.
She nods back at a much younger man in a tight white undershirt leaning against a gold minivan. The license plate holder is decorated with enamel flamingos.
I push forward towards the entrance, up the ramp leading up from the parking lot. Once I reach the front the man in the cowboy vest projects his voice again, this time much more clearly.
“We got one more spot at the bar in case anyone’s willing to break up. C’mon folks, you can't like each other that much. Although we can be held liable for any divorces that arise on the account of which partner got to drink a beer here at the famous Bluebird Café.”
Without hesitating I shoot my arm into the air so he can see me.
“I’m here — I mean, I’m only one person.”
“Great, come on down with me,” he leads me quickly, holding the door open for me and rushing me in.
“See, sometimes it pays to be a bit of a lone wolf,” [[he smiles back as we enter into a blast of guitar.->BB Cafe 2]]
I lost Reggie before the show was over, he ducked out after the second act.
I hit dial. The phone rings with no answer, goes straight to his voicemail.
I leave a message, I don’t know what else to do.
“Hey buddy, it’s me. I'm on my way.”
He said I was welcome to visit at any point, didn’t he? I had his address, didn’t I?
I thumb through entries in my phone until [[I find his address at Camp Rockmont.->Short drive Nash to Ash]]I head back towards the car. I wonder for a moment if it’s still there. Surprisingly, no one’s taken it and everything’s more or less intact. It's settled in a fine layer of dust.
I slide into the passenger’s seat. The glove compartment sits there like a jeweled chest waiting to be unlocked, discovered, the holy grail of the last crusade. One I can accept now. My hand slides over it’s push button clasp and it pops open almost automatically. The mess of notes and receipts with scribbles all over, unorganized and untidy and fragmented, the journey of a thousand words. I shuffle through the lumps of tree pulp, the fibers unweaving themselves, the napkins that disintegrate in my hands. The words look clear to me now, and for once I understand.
[[Why did I write this down?]]
[[Should I just drive off?->Ending]]I wrote everything that happened down not because I think it’s very believable, but rather the opposite. Not that anyone would necessarily understand me better, or even know what I’m talking about especially. (link:"I’m not sure who exactly I was even writing for in the first place.")[I’m not sure who exactly I was even writing for in the first place.
I remember a movie I once liked said something to this extent: that remembering is so much more strange than forgetting, and I think I’ve found it to be true. Was there any use for documenting the uncanny, the pointless, the ephemeral? The things that existed more as unknowns than knowns, experiences with no explanations? I had been so equipped with reason that at some point all irrational experiences had started to be left by the wayside, edited out, rendered non-existent because of their inability to fit into the whole. (link:"Those true stories where the odd and outlying didn’t conveniently lock into a unified narrative were left behind.")[Those true stories where the odd and outlying didn’t conveniently lock into a unified narrative were left behind.
When I first started putting these memories down I left out most of it. The visions, the unnerving things I saw that I thought I couldn’t trust enough to tell anyone else. The lives at stake. I missed Ashleigh so much that it just became a quasi-love story, but one that was vague and without the appropriate details, something that sounded straight and usual if you didn’t look too closely. (link:"I pretended there were no hallucinations, that there were straight and firm lines between real and imagined, what was perceived and what others told you—and I found that there wasn’t.")[I pretended there were no hallucinations, that there were straight and firm lines between real and imagined, what was perceived and what others told you—and I found that there wasn’t.
The more I wrote this all down the more I realized the line wasn’t distinguishable at all. I really experienced what I saw, what I heard. If my brain created chemicals that resulted in things that I experienced but no one else seemed to realize, what was the difference? Did that mean solitary experiences were always untrue? Why would I cheapen what I felt I knew firsthand to only be dependable when someone else said they were? The garbage heap of discarded experiences, of sights, smells, sounds, touches…got too massive, too high, too full, that it made me wonder why we created this dump in the first place. (link:"It started to seem like there was more discarded from the story than what was left in the story itself.")[It started to seem like there was more discarded from the story than what was left in the story itself.
Oh yeah, I forgot. To go back to what I said about remembering. The sunlight through the windshield catches my eye, and I think I see something for a second. A lake. A mountain. It wasn’t that remembering was stranger than forgetting, it was that remembering was a form of survival. By documenting and writing down the things that happened to me, whether or not someone else noticed, or whether they really happened at all, or whether they did but defied all rational thought, I survived. I survived into the past and into the future, but most importantly, I survived right now. And I knew that I didn’t just contain this knowledge myself. [[And that if I died today, something would be known, not just of myself, but of the world, and not forgotten, unlike all the unknowns that came before.->Ending]]
]]]]Part of me wants to run and flee and drive away again, an old me, a deep reflex hidden in the shadows of my heart. The person I couldn’t accept, the person I no longer want to be. I leave the door open, unlocked, and let whoever sees me see me and whoever finds me find me and I am what I am. A man with irrevokable visions, one of the thousands, or millions, that the system forgot. I won't run this time though. I'm going to stay. If not with this place, then with these people.
If you can read this, then thank you. Thank you for staying with me amongst the mistakes and errors, the inconsistancies, the typos and run-on sentences. The translation I did from scribbled notes to my head and back again. The photographs and images, the incongruities. The words and thoughts that were constantly shape-shifting and switching places. From head to paper and back again, one after another replacing each other.
Yes, perhaps I started this by running away, and yes, perhaps I began as if I was an outcast in my own city, made homeless by my own home, still trying to find an answer, a remedy, a quick fix, a solution, a happy ending. But it wasn’t that I had never found happiness, it’s that I never found (text-colour:black)+(background:white)[the end.]“Sorry, I thought. I thought, I thought—”
I walk around her, out of the pure energy halo of sunlight and turn where I can see her directly. She’s not blonde—she has dark, shiny hair the color of the earth that reflects the light, momentarily mirroring the rays of the sun, instead of the color of terrestrial growth.
“I thought we had met before.”
“I don’t think so, we just arrived last night. Were you the one who showed me where the mailboxes were?”
“No, that wasn’t me,” I pause, unsure of what to make of the situation.
“My brother's here with me,” she adds. “He’s a bit taller, has dark, wavy hair, if you see him.”
“You sure you’ve never gone by another name?” I ask.
“Nope, always been Marisol as far as I can remember. I guess Peter sometimes calls me ‘Mar’ or ‘Sol-i.’”
“It’s just that I thought we had met.” I stammer. I still feel like I’m starring at her too intently.
[[“Well,” she responds, thinking about it intently. “Maybe we have.”->Marisol 2]]When we get to the studio, it’s more settled and less chaotic than I expected. Marisol was right, Peter did was claiming his right to lay stakes here, there are already two mattresses pushed together in the corner of the floor, with a woven straw mat, a set of bongo drums, a mandolin, canvases, painters tarps, candles all around.
“Well, make yourself at home,” Peter says, throwing his bag on the ground
Peter goes to a cupboard and pulls out two loaves of bread from the dining hall, surely ones that Fielding and Jim and I prepared at some point.
Marisol opens the first of what would be many bottles of wine and Peter presents a plate with salami. He gathers a bunch of scattered cushions for us to sit on, it’s comfier than I expect.
[[“So what do you like to sing?” I ask Marisol, as she tears off a big chunk of bread.->BB Studio 3]]“I got the idea to start collecting folk songs while I was travelling,” she answers.
“Everyone always acts like the world’s about to end, right? But people aren’t as concerned with where we come from, really. As far as lived human testiment goes, we’re only can access to about a hundred years of memory. That’s why we need all these stories and art and records or whatnot— otherwise we’d have no clue.”
(link:"“How have you been working on this?” I ask, intrigued.")[“How have you been working on this?” I ask, intrigued.
“I’ve been researching songs, music, mythology, oral traditions—anything that could be auditory. Anything having to do with origins. The most interesting thing I’ve found is how much animals were a part of creation myths. Genesis is actually one of the few exceptions. Some stories relate the world being on the back of a turtle shell, or an elephant.”
“And you've been leanring how to sing all of these?” I ask.
“We’ve been recording them. Already have done about twelve. And it will keep going in perpetuity. Until we run out. Which will be never,” Marisol sighs.
“What’s the most interesting story you’ve found so far?”
[[“There’s a song about the bluebird that Peter keeps making me sing over and over,” Marisol mentions.->BB Studio 4]]
]“Can you sing it for me?” I ask, remembering the stringed instruments in the corner next to Peter’s bed.
“It’s a tough one, but we’ve been working it out,” Peter says as he gets up to grab a well worn guitar and the accompanying mandolin. “The chords are a little tricky, of course, the instrumentation was different.”
The candlelight flickers on the walls, Peter’s shadow scurries across the wall, making him look small and large at the same time. He sits down and slowly tunes the guitar, one pluck at a time. The vibrations move across the room slowly, like something I can feel in my skin, slowly seeping out of it just as it’s come in. The melody seems to sprout out of Peter’s fingers.
Marisol starts slowly, her voice dancing around the tune:
[[“Bluebird said to me, ‘Get up my grandchild it’s dawn,’ it said to me. Bluebird said to me ‘Get up my grandchild, it’s dawn,’ it said.”->BB Studio 5]]Her voice echoes around me, wavering and whispering. She somehow can warble, quietly and pleasantly bending her voice to something not quite human. Peter pushes hard on the strings, pushing them upward, also adjusting and accommodating the tune to be slightly discordant, almost animal-like. His fingers move quickly enough that it’s hard to find a separation between the string and his hand, all sounding as one, I can’t see a divide between what’s being plucked and what’s doing the plucking. In the blur of motion his hands look soft, almost fur like, bone becoming webbed, arm flapping downward, winged.
(link:"The instrumentation changes, and all of a sudden it’s something much more familiar to me. There’s a recognition that’s palpable in the melody. Marisol’s voice changes to the tune:")[The instrumentation changes, and all of a sudden it’s something much more familiar to me. There’s a recognition that’s palpable in the melody. Marisol’s voice changes to the tune:
“Blue skies smilin' at me, nothin' but blue skies do I see. Bluebirds singin' a song, nothing but bluebirds all day long.”
I reach past Marisol to grab the wine bottle. She bobs her head at me, curiously, her beak stained berry red from grapes. In her place a large bird rests, feathers the same hue as the denin jacket she had put on after swimming. I almost knock myself backward, but she’s still resting there patiently, if it is in fact still her. No voice emerges, as Peter continues the music. I’m scared to look over at him directly, worried about the shape he may have transformed into, what he might have become. I peek over at the guitar, grabbing another slice of salami, seeing Peter’s feathery claws peeking out from under the guitar. They were feathers after all. Only softness could emerge from the musical texture.
I’m paralyzed in place, breathing heavy. The aviary figures that now take the place of Marisol and Peter continue with their beautiful song, unlike any music I’ve ever heard. [[It is Bluebird, I never thought I'd find her again. It’s something I must make peace with, the unexpected vision of truth.->BB Studio 6]]]I want to run to the door, I want to jump out the window, I feel trapped inside thought, inside this place. But the fact remains, there’s a door to walk through and a window to climb out of. It can't be a prison if you never try to leave.
(after:2s)[“I think I need to lie down,” I hear myself say. I stand up on my feet, feeling wobbly, looking to move. My head is light. I stumble my way over across the floor, feeling like I’m falling the entire time I’m up. I make it over to the mattresses in the corner.]
(after:5s)[Marisol follows me to the bed, laying down long wings, Peter’s already there, appearing before my eyes. For a second they shift back to their human forms, but not for long enough. They remain ambiguous, unclassifiable, somewhere in-between. I lean forward, kneeling onto the bed, couched in Marisol’s limbs, Peter’s boney appendages next to me. I wonder now if this was the plan the whole time, to lure me back to their nest and devour me, pick me apart with their beaks, feast on me after they’d earned my trust.]
(after:7s)[Didn’t this happen all the time? The exploitation of trust? The attack in altered states, when caution was brought down? It became the common practice in a country formed out of slavery, a territory where misunderstood things were seen as ripe for domination. But one could not be on the run forever, one could not be on the defensive at all times. I had tried to guard myself intensely from total annihilation at every moment. The only way to prevent this was to stop. Boundaries weren’t the problem. In fact, they helped. What was dangerous were high cement walls, impenetrable ones that could never be crossed.]
(after:9s)[But bluebirds were not carnivores, as far as I knew, and besides the unpredictability of the situation, there was no actual threat I could perceive, only the unknown, the not knowing. I lay my head near the wall, squirming my way up onto the pillow. The bed is surprisingly cozy, more comfortable than I would have expected for a mattress on the ground. It’s soft and nest-like enough that I already feel as if I could sink in here and never get out. It’s deep, like a tomb, as I'm falling in between blankets, a comforter full of down. Maybe they drugged me. No, that’s naïve. What would they have put it in, the salami? I poured my own wine, even uncorked the bottle. The shape shifting may have been created from my own mind, my own view of people. But that’s not to say there’s no levity to the world, ever-changing around me, either. There’s a reality to all of this, something to be confronted.]
(after:11s)[I feel the bird, Marisol, next to me. I think Peter is somewhere nearby too. Funny that earlier, if I thought I’d have the chance to jump into bed with Peter I would have been ecstatic. Now, I leapt for bed as a retreat, as protection. I had never been much of a homebody—home actually didn’t seem to be that welcoming of a place—but now I finally understood why people opted to stay surrounded by their own four walls. It had gotten to the point where we could create such hermetic environments for ourselves, if only on a small scale. The world was not one to control. The only thing it asked for was to cut off contact with the rest of the world. Here I was not though, instead surrounded by my hallucinations, a situation that would be comforting under other circumstances, but not now.]
(after:13s)[It’s uncontrollable inside of me, a wellspring, a geyser, hot and foamy, emotions that are soapy and sting and run down my cheeks. The flood, the levees, the ark. I’m sobbing, the inside of my brain a carwash. Consumed.
“Are you listening, dear?”
I hear Marisol’s voice while simultaneously feeling her wings beside me. I’m too scared to look her in the eyes.
“The silence?” I ask.
“There’s more to it,” I hear a response.]
(after:15s)[The world seems buzzing with a faint tune, whether or not I’d noticed it before. This beautiful sweet silence is a sharp contrast to the thoughts running around in my head. There are crickets faintly singing outside, and the croak of a distant chorus of frogs, the iconic sound of silence.
“Blue days, all of them gone. Nothing but blue skies from now on.”
I look out the window, observing the silence I just broke. It’ll be blue before dawn, the quietest time of night, the overabundance of perceived nothingness before anything is awake. One by one the birds will begin to sing. [[I try to fall asleep and I do.->BB Studio 7]]
I didn’t hear the morning bell ring, well, I guess there is a chance that it could have rung, but I slept peacefully through. I have no clue what time it is, the sun still seems to be at an angle, but it's bright. The only thing I can think to do is find Jim. I leave Peter's studio only to see two bluebird feathers on the ground outside. I don’t I try not to think about it too hard.
It takes me some time to get my bearings and make my way back to the center of the campus when I see lots of people gathered around up ahead, back by the main dining hall. It must be later than I thought. I rush up ahead to a stream of people. [[If there was another play or celebration or talk going on, wouldn't someone have told me?->I can't do it. I wave them off and walk away.]]My sleep is weirdly sound, I can feel the movements of my counterparts lying beside me, the deep breathing as I rest, but in all actuality I’ve turned off my conscious mind.
It's the sun that wakes me, not a sound, but the light. Once I remember where I am I become fearful to open my eyes. I don’t want to go through another day like I had last night.
I had survived, I had made it the night through. When I wake, I’m fully dressed, blanketed. I look beside me to find no one else—I'm alone. It was a relief. I had conquered an uncontrolable terror. Who knew they would take the shape of my new friends? Who knew that all I had to do was let them sleep next to me?
[[When I leave the room I notice the empty bottle of wine and breadcrumbs on the floor, scattered like seed.->Leaving BB Studio]](link:"All of a sudden I’ve gone from Oklahoma tourist to desert wanderer.")[All of a sudden I’ve gone from Oklahoma tourist to desert wanderer. It’s hard to imagine a few hundred years back, not even that long ago, most of these people’s ancestors walked and waggoned themselves over expanses of land, all because they were under the impression the land was something that was rightfully theirs. The belief hasn’t gone away, but it’s hard to imagine this family of four who drove across the block to the Wal-Mart to buy processed foods, their children watching screens in the back seats, walking dozens of miles without air conditioning. It’s a trip.]
(link:"But the cars still have names like Caravan and Explorer.")[But the cars still have names like Caravan and Explorer. And the past is here, alive and kicking and breathing and not seeming to age. Trying to circle around in and out of lanes on foot is a David and Goliath-type feat. This swath of land is filled with giants, monstrous vehicles that could tear me down at a moment’s notice, by accident or intentionally.]
(link:"There’s a strip of shade at the far end, over by the dumpsters behind the store, and there’s a big yellow truck parked over there out of the sun.")[There’s a strip of shade at the far end, over by the dumpsters behind the store, and there’s a big yellow truck parked over there out of the sun. It feels good to get my blood circulating, my body stale from all these compact spaces, and move around, even if it’s hard on the pavement, my feet hitting hard, flattened stones, pounding over and over again, my toes wearing against the stiff rubber on my shoes.]
(link:"As I head for the perimeter I start to notice how muggy and viscous the air outside is.")[As I head for the perimeter I start to notice how muggy and viscous the air outside is. There are billowy clouds in the distance—maybe a storm is headed our way. I would welcome any rain at this point, anything that would clear the dust away and reinvigorate this shitty, late summer heat.]
[[I get up to the planter strip of trees, definitely wide enough to sit on and rest, but not enough of anything to be substantial.->TMV Lot 2]]The trucks, semis, and half cabs are more numerous than I had noticed. They all tower over me, like a barricade of movement that I could barely weave around. I drop down to the curb.
I rest for a second, not realizing how much the heat took out of me. It’s zapping, it’s penetrating, it makes me feel dizzy and useless. Why on earth did people choose this place, of all places, to settle? I suppose a home’s a home, no matter how brutal it can be.
I lay my head back on the chemical-looking fertilizer sprinkled on top of the mulch in this strip of plants, look up, and enjoy the shade that falls over my face. I feel like I’m fading into the ground. Last night is starting to catch up with me.
There’s a grumble, though. It sounds like a truck with a messed up engine, until I realize it’s a human sound. There’s no one to be seen though.
(link:"“You got the time on you?”")[“You got the time on you?”
Huh? I didn’t realize anyone else was around. I try to raise my head, but I don’t see anyone.
“I think it’s a little after 8:30. Maybe 9.”
A white man’s shaved head rises up from the driver’s seat of the yellow Ryder truck to my right, military looking. I didn’t realize I was being watched. He opens the door and stares at me intently, as if there’s something more to me than just myself. His eyes look nervous and untrusting, like he never quite got over that army-issued buzz cut.
"Doesn't your clock work?” I ask.
He slips partially back down the seat, but maintains a distinct unwavering air. His voice has a youthful tone to it, an undecipherable accent that must have been picked up across a handful of different states.
(link:"“Needs a new battery. What are you doing over here?”")[“Needs a new battery. What are you doing over here?”
I can see him shuffling some papers around on the seat, a handful of identifying documents and receipts he tucks out of sight. I have a bad feeling about this, an almost conspiratorial bad feeling about it. Conspiracies—that’s what my brain’s consumed by these days.
“I’m staying at that Best Western over there.”
I point back across the parking lot.
“What Best Western?” he asks.
“That one, over there.” I motion in the same direction again.
“That’s no Best Western—that’s the Junction City Dreamland.” He gazes back over to me, “That’s where I stayed.”
“Junction City? I thought we were in Oklahoma City.”
[[He laughs, “Well, Toto. I guess we're not in Kansas anymore.”->TMV Lot 3]]
]]I look back at the hotel. The word “DREAM” is predominant on the sign, I don’t know how I missed it. From how the blocky sign wraps around you can only see the word “DREAM” from here, not the “-LAND.”
I stare back across the pavement. Families with five gallons of milk stroll out of the store, loitering all over the lot, trying to remember in which row they parked.
(link:"“You by yourself there?”")[“You by yourself there?”
“Uh, no. My friend is staying with me. She’s still sleeping.”
For some reason it seems safer to tell him I’m not alone, I’m thankful for Ashleigh’s sleeping in. I’m reassured to tell him I have someone expecting me. Why is someone so much more suspicious alone? Him included?
He looks through the windshield, as if surveying his territory. His eyes shift left and right like there’s something I’m not seeing.
“What’s your name?” he commands, sounding more like a statement than a question.
[[“J,” I respond impulsively and defensively.->TMV Lot 4]]
]“Jay?” he sounds back. “If anyone asks, tell them Robert Kling, Robert D. Kling was here.”
“King?” I ask.
His speech is muffled as if it were a secret. His speech is muffled enough for me to be hopeful I’ve stumbled across R. E. Lee on accident. They sound similar enough.
“Robert Kling. No, you know what? Fuck it. No more fake names.”
(link:"He pulls out his license to show me:")[
“Tell ‘em Tim’s here. Timothy Motherfucking James McVey. You’ll hear about me someday, if there’s a someday left.”
We both stare out, but in opposite directions. He doesn’t let down.
“Well, you probably should be gettin’ out of here, Jay. You know, there’s been heavy patrolling in the area the last few days. It’s not safe here anymore.”
He shakes his head as if that’s the span of movement he exercises the most.
“You know, us Klingons have to keep a watch out—there’s enemies all around. Can never be too careful, they got so many plants out here. Government agents. I should know, I worked with ‘em,” he says with a violent cough.
(link:"At this point it seems like it might have been safer if I had met up with R.E. Lee himself on some deserted back road. I want to get the hell out of here.")[At this point it seems like it might have been safer if I had met up with R.E. Lee himself on some deserted back road. I want to get the hell out of here.
“You either fight the dominion, or you’re guilty. Simple as that. Second amendment is all we have, and barely, for the time bein’.”
“I haven’t seen much Star Trek,” I reply.
“Let me get straight with you, Jay—you either the aggressor or you on the defense, you either in power, or you aren’t. There’s only two sides to any story. Those guilty and those fighting against them. It’s as simple as that. There’s no question, we’re called to fight, we got to, or else the takeover is imminent. The government’s already taken too much of our power away. Look what happened in Waco.”
He steps out and slams the truck door closed. [[There’s a rumble in my pulse, it feels as if the ground beneath me is shaking. I lose my balance and trip over myself.->TMV Lot 5]]
]]Everything is vibrating, cracking, breaking. The land shakes me, recalibrating my heart rate to some bigger movement. There’s a thud in my chest that beats, hollow and vacant like the tremor is almost coming from deep inside the earth’s core. An earthquake? They don’t have earthquakes in this part of the country, do they?
I look back to the man in the truck again, but he’s disappeared on the other side, I can’t see him anymore. I think of Ashleigh back at the hotel. The parking lot is moving in waves as if the land had become the sea, and the sea has become the land. My vision warps and everything around me looks altered, like when the heat turns the landscape into unsound squiggles, lines and blots of color that wobble back and forth. [[I try to remember the idea of a stable horizon.->TMV Lot 6]]There are billowy clouds in the sky. They look darker now, like they’re blowing this way quickly. Did the rumble start a fire somewhere? Or burst gas pipes? But the clouds were there before. I need to get back to Ashleigh. Something ominous is going on.
I want to run back to the hotel, but the parking lot doesn’t provide a straight shot. I practically end up on tiptoe, walking quickly, on edge, as if the pavement is full of landmines. I try to look both ways before crossing any painted on lane or boundary, but it’s impossible to constantly look both directions at once. My neck aches from looking left and right, left and right, rotating back and forth, trying to be aware and watching all sides at once—it’s whiplash at this point.
As quickly as I can, I get to the divider that designates motel pavement. I climb back up the stairs to the room, and when I open the door Ashleigh’s already awake. Did she hear the boom?
“Did it rain?” she asks sleepily, still lying in bed.
[[“Did you hear a booming?” I ask, still gasping from my sprint back to the room. “I think we need to go.”->TMV Lot 7]]Ashleigh rolls to her side and stares at the digital alarm clock.
“Is it time to check out?”
“There was this weird guy in the parking lot,” I manage out, shaking and still trying to recover my breath. “He said he was—”
“What guy?” she asks back, still preoccupied, now wandering around the room, searching for her left shoe before returning to the containers of gel and lotion and powder.
“Right before I thought I heard an explosion or something. I felt the ground shaking—it was like an earthquake.”
I’m packed and ready to go. I don’t want to bother with changing my clothes.
“You’re so California.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It's probably just a thunder clap, a storm,” Ashleigh says with an encouraging smile, her arms loaded with her duffle, her purse, the leftover bourbon in a half ripped shopping bag. [[“I’ll meet you down at the car?”->I get Ashleigh up and we walk into town.]]