How to Get Lost
My name is David Chase and I implore you, I’m on my damned knees begging you…do not follow me. Don’t look for me, don’t pick up the trail. Just…don’t.
I was a damned fool, I can see that now. There were signs, but I was blind, foolish and invincible and I’ll pay for it. I’ll pay for all of it, God knows I will. No, that’s not true. Not even God can find me now or maybe I could ask for his pity. But he cannot hear my words.
I’ll tell you what happened, but promise me and promise yourself this, right now, that you won’t walk down the path I did. Read the names and places and then let them wash out of your mind. I might have changed them! Who’s to say for sure? You don’t know! Just let it be!
Alright, I’m sorry, I’m calm now, honestly. And I can begin.
Well, I’m American, I was any way. I suppose that’s meaningless now, but there it is. And once upon a time I was a young man and had just finished my degree in journalism from Michigan State, a lifetime and a world away.
I got a job working for a rag of a newspaper; local nothing news written by local nothing reporters. It kept the lights on and the loan collectors off the other end of the phone. That was all. It wasn’t much, but it felt like writing, real honest-to-God paycheck for words stuff and it seemed like enough.
But I couldn’t do it for very long, writing down what other people did, said, thought, I couldn’t stomach it. Passive observing in a land of passive observers.
So when the opportunity presented itself, I tagged along with some schoolmate acquaintances, backpacking it across the Continent from Barcelona and being as non-American as we thought possible with sane limits. We drank warm brandy in a Viennese concert hall and thought ourselves very enlightened. Our pleasant enough union dissolved shortly thereafter amidst a late night row over a bar tab and perhaps some sense of intellectual superiority that everyone besides myself had decided I radiated. It was an amiable group while it lasted and made for good conversations on late night trains when there was no countryside to be taken in and the rhythmic jouncing of the cabin threatened to keep you sleeping far past your intended destination.
I travelled on from the Continent by rail and into Britain, which is how I had ended up rather unexpectedly in the Cumbria region of England, sitting on a desolate end-of-the-line railway platform on a night as silent as a funeral wake and wondering how many stations had been called off while I dozed between my intended stop of Manchester and a town named Keswick which I was later told was pronounced without the “w”.
That was what I had learned in England. All the towns I had seen had lovely, dollar and change names that filled your mouth like a satisfying nosh with afternoon tea, but when I met a local I was dismayed to find that usually most of the spelling was inconsequential to the actual pronunciation and you ended up with a short, blurt of a name that barely lasted a breathe. Like so much in England, it was just for looks. Something that always had been and so always shall be because the English would be damned if they would be the ones to change a name or a political system of their own devising if they could help it, or help to ignore it. Ignoring seemed to be very much at the heart of English culture. Polite indifference would be a better term, a more English one perhaps.
Standing underneath a solitary railway station lamp with a canvas bag hanging off one shoulder and a stack of legal pads under my arm, the thought occurred to me that the threat of this type of situation was what should have made me eat my pride and dole out an extra thirty Euro for drinks that I swear I hadn’t drank several weeks before on the Continent. I might still be lost, but being lost as a group isn’t quite as disheartening and maybe I would have been awake in Manchester.
The cabin lights of the train went off one by one, all the way up the line to the engine and a shabby fellow in a dark blue conductor’s suit stepped onto the platform with a small carry-on sized piece of luggage that extended a foot-long handle and trailed behind the conductor on rickety plastic wheels as he walked briskly down the platform.
He seemed to have someplace to go and I started to quickly weigh my options. It was early Autumn and Cumbria seemed to already be a month ahead of the season in terms of a late night chill. I could sit on a metal bench and wait for another six or seven hours until the morning train probably left or follow the conductor and see if there was anything worth seeing or at the very least find a room with a bed and a roof.
When my “long excursion” as I called it had begun in Barcelona a few months prior I had started to write down observations of my unplanned expedition in a tone between that of a journal and travel guide. That was how my editor friend back in the States had put it. I just thought of it as bullshit-aside non sequitur. Skip the history lessons and just give the people what they want, how to travel abroad and not be pegged as an entitled American. In that aspect it was a bit of an exercise in developing an alter-ego. I found it impossible to write with the polite observational tone of your typical travel guide. It seemed patronizing in the way that you should see everything foreign as rich and cultured and engrossing, sometimes things are just things and sometimes they make no rational sense in a modern world, like the names of British towns. I was sending him pieces here and there and he was collecting it for what he said would be a fresh take on travel writing. A manifesto of the new era of the rambling American traveler he called it, sick of spending so much time declaring our fascination of everything non-American for fear of raising someone’s ire about their perceived impression that Americans hated everything that wasn’t red, white and McDonald’s, when in reality it seemed to me that other countries spent far more energy disliking the U.S. then the U.S. had ever bothered into even reading a globe. But then, maybe that was reason enough for their negative associations. My editor said the book would do great in the college age demographic which made me kind of want to stop sending him pieces, but I kept at it anyway.
I followed the conductor a few blocks down a boot-worn cobblestone road, our heels clicking off the stones and echoing back at us from white-bricked buildings before he walked up a set of stairs and I was left alone, again, and wondering to myself why I hadn’t bothered to keep track of our route from the railway station through the unlit streets of a hibernating town.
I peered around the corner of the closest building, hoping in that very American way to see a brightly lit Motel 6 sign complete with a billboard-sized red-numbered price blinking on and off, $39.99 a night, VACANCY. I was disappointed in that regards, but there were two brightly lit street lamps a few blocks away, directly across from each other, and from underneath both swung painted wooden signs that I couldn’t make out, but the thought occurred to me that they reminded me of shop signs I had seen in “renaissance festivals” I had covered in the Midwest where they were still getting half of their European history out of fantasy novels and the other half from Hollywood which had gotten their history lessons…from fantasy novels.
When I got within a block I could make out the sign on the left side of the road and sadly it said nothing about Motels or 6’s, but it did have an inviting enough name: “Evelyn’s”. It sounded like the name that would belong to a beneficent old woman. Below “Evelyn’s” hung a wooden “VACANCY” sign on little metal hooks, swaying back and forth in the evening breeze, creaking as it rocked. I pictured someone actually walking outside, removing that sign and bringing it indoors in lieu of just ticking off a panel somewhere. It seemed so tedious and therefore terribly charming.
The sign hanging over the door on the opposite side of the street didn’t have a name, only a painted carving of a fattened pig, laying on its back and blindfolded. I couldn’t tell with only the dim lamplight to see, but it looked like it was smiling…or crying, I couldn’t say for sure. It gave me the creeps.
I walked up the steps to Evelyn’s and pulled on the doorknob, but it wouldn’t move so I backed down the steps and looked for signs of life. A curtain rustled and footsteps on aged wooden floors started from the inside. I put on my best, “I’m not a serial killer smile,” a traveler’s best friend, practice it often, when a purplish Shar Pei face of an old woman peered from behind the now open door.
“Yes…?” she said quietly with a not so small hint of apprehension.
“Hello there” I said, waiting for a reply until the silence was just a smidge under unbearable then pointed to the “Vacancy” sign. “Got a room?”
“Mmmm? Oh, yes! Come in out of that air love, we’ll get you fixed up,” she replied, now the perfect face of hospitality.
I followed the pickled, but in a lovely way, old woman inside to where I assumed would be a small affair of a reception room. In actuality it was merely a sitting room, Victorian couch, Mahogany coffee table with a silver tea service in the middle, doilies tacked to the walls. It smelled of crackers and looked like a life-size version of a dollhouse parlor.
“You rest your burden here, love,” she indicted the couch with a few pats of the cushion, “and we’ll get you sorted. Have a biscuit.” She smiled and pushed a tray of dry-looking cookies across the coffee table then disappeared down a hallway into the house’s interior and turned into a room where the sounds of drawers sliding open and papers being shuffled about began to emanate.
I retrieved a cookie, er “biscuit” from the tray and experienced its overwhelming dryness and sweet flavor as I glanced at the bric-a-brac lining the walls and shelves and crammed in almost every corner.
A few moments later the old woman came walking gingerly down the hallway holding a wide leather book that I thought was a ledger of some kind. She sat next to me on the couch and spread the book open on the coffee table and I could see that it was a registry. The last name was dated over three months prior. No departure date was written. I thought to ask, but it struck me as improper.
“Now just sign in here dear and I’ll put fresh linens on the bed. How long might you be staying?” she asked.
“Tonight, maybe tomorrow,” I said halfway through chewing, trying not to choke on the chalky biscuit.
“Just a bit of skipping around then, eh? Was that a bit of Yankee Doodle I heard in your voice?” she said looking a bit like Miss Marple, hard on the case of a mystery in her very own living room.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. Always be polite, I mentally notated for the book. For Americans who are unaccustomed to the proper usage of such vocabulary, refer to your mental library of 1950’s TV show dialogue. I’d recommend Lassie personally. Timmy was just about the most incessantly polite character ever dreamed up by the American Film industry, but any dated American TV show will do the job, i.e. the Andy Griffith Show, Leave it to Beaver, etc.
“I’m from Michigan. It looks like this,” I said while holding up my right hand, palm flat and fingers straight, like a traffic cop instructing a vehicle to halt.
She looked at me silently with a raised eyebrow and perplexed expression as though I was a newborn pup, mistaking the living room rug for the backyard. There was a pity in her eyes usually reserved for the benevolently insane.
“It’s by Canada,” I shrugged. “I’m on vacation, er holiday. I wasn’t planning on stopping here, but it just kind of ended up that way.”
“Mmmm, it sounds lovely, dear. Does a young man good to cut loose the strings and venture out on his own. So how would twenty pounds a night do?” she said while leaning towards me with her hands clasped together like a wholesome grandmother offering a second piece of fresh pecan pie.
“Sounds perfectly fine,” I replied, smiling back at her and wondering to myself if I had just missed an unannounced barter session. The price of lodging didn’t seem like it was ever an opportunity for haggling at home so I just let it go.
I rifled through my wallet and pulled out two twenty pound notes which I inspected to reaffirm they were the proper denominations before passing them over to her.
“I’ll just pay for tomorrow night in advance. I’ll probably stay in town and do some sightseeing before I head back to Manchester.” I said. “Across the street…is that a pub?” I asked.
“Oh yes, the sign used to have a name, but it wore away years ago. No one minded very much, it put off the tourists,” she said shaking her head disappointedly.
“What…was the name?” I asked delicately.
“Well if you must know dear, it was The Slaughter Arms. It was the name of a local family. Old blood. Better left forgotten. You go ahead and walk right in. We’re a friendly lot you’ll find and they’ve a good lamb stew, do your bones good on a night like tonight,” the old woman smiled showing a sad display of teeth that might not have seen better days. It was strange. She was looking less grandmotherly by the minute. The microscope was getting too close.
“That actually sounds delicious, perfect even,” I said standing up. Pulling a wrinkled pocket map from my shirt that was folded over and over again I pointed to a small dot just off the blue swath indicating the Irish Sea to the west. “And just so I get my bearings, this is…KesWick?”
“KeSSick, dear. But you were within shouting distance. Will you be joining your friends back in Manchester then?” she asked, raising her eyebrow again, the perfect face of civil curiosity.
“Uh, nope. It’s just me. I like to live dangerously,” I replied and shot her my, it’s our little secret wink.
“Well you go and get yourself fixed up now and I’ll have the bed made when you get back. It’s at the end of the hall and don’t mind me, I sleep like the dead and in the basement room. I like a bit of chill when I take my sleep. Helps the digestion.”
I couldn’t imagine the basement of an old brick house, probably built in the 18th century as anything particularly cozy, but who knows? Maybe it was just as dollhouse dainty as the rest. I picked up by backpack and headed towards the front door.
“Thank you, ma’am. Would you be Evelyn herself then?” I asked.
“That’s me, dear, “ she said, smiling that ruin-filled mouth of hers. “Enjoy yourself now.”
* * * * *
I walked across the street and stood under the mildly disturbing sign for a moment. I still couldn’t tell if the bloated pig was smiling or not. I could see above where weathered indentations might have shown the uninviting name years before. The first, blind entrance into a local establishment is always a nervous encounter. Ironically, the best course of action is to be unabashedly American about it: just walk right in like you fucking own the joint and look as interested as you might be picking up a gallon of milk and a twinkie at a gas station.
I pulled the windowless door open and steeled myself. This was the moment. The unbearable scene in a hundred movies where the wistful traveler walks in, eyes and mouth agape into a dim, smoky bar and a hundred grizzled faces turn in unison, silent as the grave and pissed off.
The dim part was true. It was smoky too which I thought was odd considering there was an indoor smoking ban in the U.K. for a few years now. A hundred faces, there were not. Maybe a dozen people scattered amongst small round tables and perhaps two looked up as I entered then immediately went back to their conversations or watching a football match on a dusty television set in the corner.
I pulled a stool up to a stained oak counter and politely nodded to the barman who was drying pint glasses with a towel that badly needed a wash. He walked over with the not-unfriendly, not-welcoming look that barmen across the world have written into their DNA.
“What’ll it be then?” he asked rather uninterestedly.
“Um…pint of the local?” I asked in return. Most places in the U.K. as in the U.S. will have a local brew. It might not be good and it might not be cheap, but it’s the easiest method I have discovered for implying, “Hello, I am new here and I think your town is just delightful. I would drink it in liquid form if they bottled it.”
He nodded with a pleased look as if I had just spoken the correct password and poured me a glass of a dark, viscous looking beer. It was bitter as Hell and made my eyes squint shut, but it was a thick, satisfying drink and it felt like a warm hug as the alcohol went into my system.
The barmen went back to his chores and I pulled a wrinkled legal pad from my bag and flipped to an empty page, eager to get the days musings on paper. About the time that I had filled two or three pages, and drank 4 or 5 pints, a small group of young, college age men and women walked in, nodded happily to the barman and sat around a large table at the opposite corner of the pub.
I immediately noticed her. She was beautiful, dark-haired and diminutive. She smiled more than the rest of them and couldn’t help but be the center of attention. They hung on her ever word and gesture and so did I. I stopped writing to just listen to the conversations they were having, to pick out her voice amongst the rest.
“Everything doesn’t have to be so all-encompassing you know, so universal,” she said. “Very few things are so very formulaic, but it doesn’t stop us from trying to make everything fit into a pretty little box, wrapped in a bow of the purest symbolism. A tidy little package, escribing all we need to know inside a pocket-sized fable.”
She drew cobalt runes in the air with cigarette smoke and looked like she knew something that I didn’t.
I could make out that they were students at the local university and that this was some sort of literary club. They discussed modern works and classics alike, dissecting the meanings or giggling at the names of characters and I badly wished that I could have been among them. Time traveled and immigrated in my college days just to be a part of their group, but especially to be around this woman. She was surrounded by eager hangers-on like a biblical scene of attentive disciples. She was smart, funny and gorgeous and I thought I might have to stay a bit longer in this town where they do not pronounce the “w”.
* * * * *
Every night for the next week I had stationed myself at that worn oak counter, next to the beloved brass taps and sipped my pint of bitter, writing on the day’s observations in a scribble-covered legal pad and watched from the corner of my eye as the group came in, sat at the table in the corner and looked to be having more nightly laughs than I could remember having in a year. But most of all I looked at her. I took her in, the way she moved or tilted her head when she thought something was downright absurd.
This was getting ridiculous. I had spent more time in Keswick than I had in any town in the past few months and I wasn’t doing much of anything besides camping out at The Slaughter Arms and being a tragic voyeur. I decided that I had written enough about the charming establishments and windswept nights of Cumbria and in the morning I would have to move on. I had enough written for my “manifesto”, I was pretty sure of that so I had mailed my work to my editor that morning.
I was gulping the last of my pint and pulling bills from my wallet to pay when she sat down at the barstool right next to me.
I looked up slowly and saw that she was looking at me. She leaned her head on her hand and wore a wry smile and found that suddenly I couldn’t move.
“Leaving?” she said with a smirk.
“Well, I, uh, it’s late and I’ve got to…,” was all that managed to escape my lips.
“Well I was just thinking, I’ve seen you here every night for the past week, sitting up here and scribbling away on whatever it is you’re writing and I’d love to find out and I know you’ve seen me, but there seems to be a lack of bollocks from your side of the equation so I supposed I had better hurdle this bullshit before we waste another perfectly good evening of potentially getting to know one another,” she said. “What do you think?”
I pursed my lips and titled my head back, laughing madly. I nodded back at her and marveled. How could I resist her? She had said everything I had always secretly wished an attractive girl at a bar would have the gumption to say, but knew that that was the business of men, to make impetuous fools of ourselves on the grounds that maybe it would come across as slightly endearing.
I held out my hand and grinned embarrassedly. “David,” I said and she smiled and took my hand, “Natalie,” and we were off.
* * * * *
She obviously wasn’t shy; she was boisterous about her opinions, liberal with her drink and pressed against me with a whisper whenever she was making a point about something. God help me…she was intoxicating and I drank her in.
She was a quiet beauty and a fierceness burned behind her eyes when she talked and that kind of passion about anything is terribly sexy and I began to wonder how noiseproof the floors in Evelyn’s might be.
Things were going well and I’m nothing if not optimistic. You have to be when travelling abroad and especially alone and absolutely when American so that you don’t see thievery on every face and malice in every word. Fight the programming and you might actually enjoy yourself and meet some fascinating creatures in the process.
I started to think that maybe I could afford to stay for another week or two, Natalie could show me the rest of Northern England by train and we’d live out our very own whirlwind fling, all that we’d need would be to sell the movie rights and get John Cusack to play the wanderlust American writer and maybe Kate Beckingsale to play the alluring young Natalie, there was a distinctive similarity in the looks of the two women and that didn’t do anything to limit my attraction.
“Hey!” she said suddenly, drumming the bar with both hands. “I’ve got an idea. Piss off outside and I’ll be right behind you, need to secure the evening’s entertainment and there’s something I want to show you. I think you’re really going to like this.”
For a second I thought she was telling me to get lost, but she still wore that wry smile of hers and something told me the night wasn’t over yet, so I tipped the last of my beer and slapped some notes on the bar. Trotting outside, I felt pretty happy about where my “long excursion” and oversleeping on an afternoon train had landed me. God, what a fool I was. What a belligerent idiot.
I had my back to the door when I heard it open and a soft, whispering voice spoke from behind me, “hang on a sec, don’t turn around.” I felt her unzip my backpack pack and push something heavy into it before zipping it back up. Then she walked around to my front and I could see she was holding a thick wool blanket.
“Follow me, “ she said as she put an arm through mine and we started down the cobblestone road.
“Where are we going? And where’d you get the blanket?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s a surprise! I think you’ll love it. I really do,” she said.
We walked down the street then turned between old brick buildings before emerging from behind them and on a well worn dirt path. She barely talked, she seemed like she was relishing the evening and I thought this was the type of late night adventure I had been searching for ever since I had first come to this part of the world.
The horizon was lined with dark highlands. They dotted the landscape and soon the lights of Keswick grew dim in the distance.
It was silent out on the old dirt road and a line from an old horror movie about lost American travelers rang in the back of my mind, stay off the moors.
The road dipped down into the low part of a valley and I could see there was a small, cleared area at the bottom. When we reached it I could see circle of huge gray stones, some leaned off center and were heavily weathered. There was a large rope that circled the megaliths and that was where we stopped.
“What is this?” I asked, fascinated and unnerved by a creeping, ominous feeling that clouded the circle in that dark, death silent night.
“This,” she said, spreading her arms wide, “is Castlerigg. It’s our little Stonehenge. Not quite as grand or as famous, but it’s ours.”
“Wow, too bad about the boundary,” I said.
“Yes, too bad,” she said and jumped over it, snickering to herself.
I followed her and she led me to the inside of the circle. I marveled at the great slabs of rock and wondered how they had gotten there and why.
She walked to one of the biggest stones, touched it, lovingly almost and put the blanket down in front of it.
“Come over here for a bit,” she said.
We laid on the ground and she opened my pack to reveal a large bottle of scotch that I presumed she had purchased or pilfered from the Slaughter Arms.
The scotch was good on that cold night and before long we were laying very close as nature and alcohol took their course.
She played with the buttons on my shirt and we talked for a long time. It was me that made the first move, liquid courage I suppose. We were kissing and getting more acquainted with each other’s bodies and I couldn’t resist her. Forget the two weeks, Hell, I could live here, live forever in this town and be with Natalie. It was all too perfect.
As things grew more heated and we cared less about being exposed to the elements I almost thought she was losing her taste for it for a moment, she wasn’t smiling, wasn’t making the same noises, but I couldn’t help myself and stripped the rest of her clothes off. She wasn’t fighting me off, no, but she wasn’t helping, she wasn’t giving in.
When we reached the point of no return I thought I saw a look of pain on her face and someone far off where I couldn’t hear or wouldn’t said, “no, I can’t.” But I couldn’t stop then, I couldn’t, surely you can see that? And I pushed myself inside her. She scratched at my chest and I thought I might be bleeding, but when I looked down to check she was smiling a wicked grin and laughing. Laughing like a banshee and her head whipped back and forth, her hair smacked against my face.
She spun me over onto my back with uncanny strength and rocked her wild, frenetic body on top of me. That was when I started to feel the pain. Something deep inside of me was ripping or burning or being eaten alive. I started to hear screaming then realized it was me, it was me and I was yelling for her to get off, but she wouldn’t and she pinned my arms to the ground. How, I had no idea. I looked into her face and suddenly wished I hadn’t, wished I had been on a train, awake, in Manchester.
Her face was wrong. It was still her face, but now it was being pulled in all directions and everything grew contorted and exaggerated. Her mouth spread from ear to ear in a demonic grin and her teeth were jagged bits of rock. Oh, god, it was horrible. Her eyes burned like phosphorous torches and the laughing…the dreadful, banshee wail she emitted. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t look at her for the terror that was passing through me so I turned my head and saw a world gone mad.
The stones, the devilborn stones were on fire, they danced and careened from side to side and light up with orange runes that lit their surface and the ground between. The sky was bright and dark at the same time and the trees disappeared and melted, only to come back again, deformed and rotted.
I could see a stone manor house in the distance. Once a ruin, now new as the day it was built and gone the next moment. Men crowded around the circle in black robes and pushed the stones with bloodied hands up into standing positions and danced around them then disappeared.
She started to beat me then. Smashing my face with her fist and all the while gyrating on top of me and laughing. Laughing. The burning, feeling of death welled up inside me and everything began to fade, to mercifully fade to true black where not even her evil face could reach me.
* * * * *
I lay on the chill earth and didn’t open my eyes. They still burned with what they had seen. The whole of my body burned and I felt inside out. Turning to my side, I retched violently into the dirt and didn’t move, I just breathed.
The foul air was stale and sour at the same time, it was sickening and I vomited again, though nothing but spit and fire came up and it was a while before I moved again.
A cold wind washed across my face, brought the senses back to me and I slowly opened my battered eyes. A dark shadow hulked over me. It reached for me and I screamed and flailed. I wasn’t going to let her do it! Not again. I’d run, tear her face to shreds if I could, smash my skull against the horrid stones to save myself before I let that happen again.
Hands groped for my face and I fought blindly against them, screaming wildly as a palm pushed hard against my mouth, cutting off my shrieking.
“Shut up, will you? Just take it easy for a bloody moment, you fool, you poor bastard,” the figure said, still a featureless smear against the sky. The sky behind the figure was wrong, all wrong. A putrid, gray thing, it moved impossibly fast above the silhouette, like burning ash moving through the atmosphere in a time lapse video.
The figure pulled me roughly to my feet and I could see that it was a man, a little older than myself, disheveled and bruised. Blood had matted his hair in a few different places along his scalp.
“Where in the Hell…,” I started to say, still gasping for air.
“That’s just it chap, that’s just it,” the man said with an English accent. “Not the big one I’d wager. Just our very own slice of it. Just a little slice of Hell,” he said and began to laugh madly. “Can you imagine?”
Glancing behind me I could see the stones of Castlerigg and beyond that a line of barren, wilted pines. We were at the bottom of an extensive valley that looked blasted by the heat flash of a nuclear explosion. Desolate. Malformed and lifeless and gray as the underworld of Hades.
When my eyes returned to the circle, I almost screamed again. The stones…they were…perfect. They rose at least twelve feet high above the valley floor. Stone as black as soulless night and hone to a surface so pristine that they looked like as if they were made of glass.
“I’m Henry…I’m Henry Whitborne,” the man said as though he was remembering it as he was saying it.
I looked at his beaten face with a terrible kind of recognition.
“The name…the name in the registry that never checked out, that was you,” I said in a barely audible voice.
“Oh,” he said, now the look of recognition was on his face. “You were brought through where I was, weren’t you? You poor, pathetic bastard. I am sorry for you, but no more than I am sorry for myself and for all of us.” He looked around the valley, searching for something I had thought. “I am surprised it was still there, that she was still there, still using it. She moves you know, she grows bored,” he said and made quick, fleeting looks around the valley. “How long has it been, how many years? You can’t tell here. How many years since I signed the book?” he asked with a thick need in his voice.
“Years?” I said. “No, it hasn’t been years, months, it’s been three months.”
The look of horror that filled his face was indescribable, terrible to behold. He began to wail.
“No…nooo….,” he cried as he collapsed into the ashen ground. Henry rocked back and forth, cradling his legs with his arms as he swayed.
“Henry! What is this? What is this place?” I yelled at him desperately.
“Isn’t it obvious? Don’t you see?” he bawled without looking up at me. “It’s for us. For her toys. A prison for her pretties, for all of us,” he said as his outstretched finger swept across the valley and I could see what…who he was pointing at.
There were figures spread across the valley floor. They huddled under the wrecked pines, in the dirt, contorted into fetal positions. They stared at nothing, some cried, some laughing as mad men do. And they were all men. Pitiful, beaten men. Some looked as though their skin had been flailed and peeled away, only to be reattached haphazardly. There were men in tattered suits, in bloodied togas, some naked, some wearing pitted metal armors or shreds of blackened chainmail and still others in leather tunics. They were all the colors of humanity and had all the features that ever filled a human face.
“She won’t let us leave, you know. She won’t even let us die. I’ve tried, we’ve all tried. She puts you back together, but not all the way so you remember your lesson,” Henry said.
“What…is she?” I asked, not wanting to hear the answer or anything else.
“I…don’t know,” he began as he fought in vain to keep hold back tears. “They have names for her, we all do, you will too. Succubus, Lilith, the whore of creation, bitchcunt of a thousand dead ages of man, raging at an uncaring God for some ill done her millennia before we were ever spat out of our mother’s wombs. She is the Beast. She built this, a long time ago. Tricked foolish men into building it for her and with their blood and lust she consecrated it. There were others, but this was her first, her favorite. You’ve seen her before you know, all men have. She stalks us, picking off the lost and the lonely ones. It’s her game, her little game she’ll play until the end and then maybe we can be granted glorious death. Maybe. If we’re good. If we play along.”
Suddenly he stood up and looked at me with terrible, wounded eyes and ran away from the stone circle into the dark of the trees, screaming like a wild, cackling animal until finally I couldn’t see him or hear his shrieks.
I collapsed onto the ground and wept haggardly. It was then I looked next to me to see my pack and the shredded blanket. I reached into the bag and pulled out a notebook and began to write, to write this letter that you will never see, this letter that will never leave this place, but I had to write it. It’s all I know how to do, all I can do. It was all I could do, the only thing I know how to do and it’s all pointless. I am sorry. I’m sorry that I can’t do more. I’m sorry for your sake. And for my own.
With that, David Chase signed his name upon the letter that no one would ever read. He put his head between his knees and that was when he felt the warm, fetid breath on his neck. A hand grasped his shoulder and long, claw-like nails pierced his flesh and trails of blood slowly dripped down his chest.
“Hello, David,” the horrible, alluring woman’s voice whispered. “I’ve missed you.”
“Hello…Natalie,” he said and wept softly.
* * * * *
Paul Zolkowski sat in his office on an old leather chair that complained as he leaned back. He was on the phone with his publishing company, conversations he avoided when at all possible. He was always having to call with last minute details and they never seemed to pay attention to any of them. Talking to secretaries who relayed information to assistants who then went on to talk with the people who actually made the changes was tedious and idiotic. Why he couldn’t talk to those people directly he never knew.
He had been editing a book for an old friend the previous year when he stopped receiving his friend’s writing. Periods without communication weren’t infrequent, but even the lack of a monthly phone call was cause for concern. Friends and family of David Chase were distraught and despite a thorough investigation by the U.K. government and several private investigators hired by the Chase family, no suspected crime or trace of physical evidence was ever found from David’s last known whereabouts.
At the wishes of David’s parents, Paul helped to get his book published and the proceeds went on to fund the investigation. How to Get Lost was a bestseller as far as travel writing goes and was doing particularly well among college age readers. It spoke to them in a way they could appreciate about seeing the world from a young, devil-may-care perspective. It was also lauded by many in the journalism community as a new, much needed voice, made more infamous by the mysterious circumstances under which the author had disappeared.
Paul was never satisfied with the findings. He was a consummate critic of law enforcement and would have wagered his BMW that the government officials of the United Kingdom probably couldn’t care less about what they figured was some wayward American, trying to get lost and in their opinion, probably holed up in a Swiss chalet to avoid repaying a substantial amount of school loans. Let him have his fun, they probably thought.
“Fine, yes,” he said to the phone, “let’s print those reviews on the back cover for the new edition. But not from the State Journal, David never liked working for that paper. Goodbye,” Paul said as he hung up the receiver.
He leaned forward and pulled a Marlboro from the package and lit the end, taking in a deep drag. He picked up an airplane ticket from his desk and pulled it from its envelope, reading the long schedule of connecting flights. It would be long couple of days of travel, but he had to know for himself…
DTW (Detroit Metro Airport) to JFK (JFK International Airport), JFK (JFK International Airport) to LHR (London Heathrow), LHR (London Heathrow) to KSW (Keswick Municipal Airport).
© 2011 J. Logan Carey