30 Oct The Story Machine, Story 1: The Intruder
As I walked away from the funeral, I realized what I wanted. My head was burning with words, all the sounds, and I was finished with them. I’d never wanted anything more than silence. Everywhere it should have been, I found empty apologies, stifled sobs, and awkward condolences of people who knew—they just knew—that they had to say something. Only they had no idea what. Their faces kept talking long after their voices stopped, and the words weighed as much as an overturned car. I needed to find where the silence was hiding.
So I went to my place.
A few months before the accident—when everything was easier—I managed to get six hundred acres of old-growth forest, a good-sized stream, and a beautiful pond, all for dirt cheap at a tax auction. Everyone told me it was a hall of a deal. I was bidding against a guy who’d taken a shot at every lot that day—he always lost interest after two or three times around—and everyone else was wary of the place. I couldn’t believe my luck. My very own paradise, and the perfect place to disappear. No one would even be able to find it. The access road was practically invisible.
If I went up there ready to disappear into the woods and simply cease to be, maybe everyone would forget the something they needed to say. Maybe I’d forget there was a reason to say anything at all. Way back into the woods, long after the end of the dirt road, there was an old, sprawling house—a mansion, really—a large portion of which had fallen in on itself. The addition, one that looke like someone had built it a century after the original house, was the only part that had remained relatively intact, though it, too, was on the way down. The whole thing was roped off; layer upon layer of yellow tape crying “CAUTION” and “ASBESTOS” lay on the ground. Maybe someone thought that if they just used enough tape, the house would cease to be. I picked up a length of warning and stuffed it in my pocket. I wasn’t afraid of the mansion the was everyone else at the auction was. If the ruin kept them away it could keep the rest of the world away. It was my salvation.
I didn’t bring any food—couldn’t remember the last time I’d had an appetite—just a bottle of wine, a bag of coffee, and enough supplies to brew it over a fire. I hiked further into the woods, away from the house, until I found a circle of rocks near the bank of the stream. I’d wanted to camp there since I first found it, but I’d never had the chance. I took the wine bottle out, smashed the neck off on a rock, and dumped it into the stream, watching the wispy trails of red float away. Goodbye. No more wine, not ever. Not that it took any of the blame off. Grasping the body just beneath the shoulder, I held what remained beneath the surface of the stream and watched the clear, cold water pulse out. Wine into water. Neat trick.
I released the remains and turned back to my little camp. It was the perfect spot, except there were too many birds. They wouldn’t shut up, and I was just so damn tired. I built a fire, smashed some coffee beans between two rocks, filled the percolator in the stream, added the grounds, and put the whole thing on to boil. After a few impatient minutes I was chewing on the remaining beans. The dark and bitter crunch was the only thing that could drown out the chirping. But not just chirping—there was another sound out there. A voice…someone talking. Far enough away that I couldn’t make anything out…it had to be my imagination running away with me. There couldn’t be anyone there. It was my place and I was just tired. When the sun went down—maybe—I could sleep.
The crying woke me. The crying and horrible laughing. My eyes opened pointed up at the stars, and my ears filled with wild yapping. Talking. They were right on top of me and excited, signaling to each other as they ripped up my backpack in search of food they’d never find. In search of sustenance. I lay there in silence and watched, too tired to be afraid. There were dark, shining droplets soaking the ground near my head—saliva, or blood, that had dripping from their mouths, or coffee I’d spilled when I fell asleep. They didn’t seem to ever know I was there. They just kept tearing at the canvas, spilling my meager supplies across the ground and yapping to one another. I watched the coals, behind them, bleeding their last bits of light into the woods and waited for them to leave me alone.
The fire was dead and the sky was dark before they gave up, and, spurred on by the unnatural levels of caffeine now coursing through them, took off into the woods. I had no idea how late it was and no interest in finding out. Sleep was gone, the coyotes were still howling in the distance, and it was as good as morning for me. They were mocking me, laughing, talking to one another—they had to say something and they couldn’t leave me alone. Sleep hadn’t helped. A voice amongst the wild dogs was deeper. More familiar. I shook my head, kicked up off the flattened grass and started walking.
There was no conscious decision involved, no thought process I was aware of, but my feet carried me through the woods to the clearing where the old mansion waited. The sight of the thing, naked and jagged, beams sticking up and silhouetted against the moonlight, made my stomach twist. It must have been beautiful once, until neglect choked the life from it. There was nothing inside me but coffee and acid.
One of the doors, the one nearest me, had been split in half by the weight of the sagging roof and squeezed open like an overripe fruit, spilling splinters across the ground. The inside, an open space that resembled a garage, or a carriage house, was darker than the woods. There wasn’t any light seeping in from behind me, just two shafts of moonlight cutting in through the back windows that allowed me to see the monstrous pile of garbage that filled the room. Boxes, broken appliances, black garbage bags that shuddered in the wind, overturned couches and chairs: they covered the entire floor at least three feet deep—double that in a few places. Everything that was close enough to see clearly was lined with scratches—the coyotes had already worked the place over—and smelled of mold and rot. To the left of me, the walls groaned.
The door that led from this room into the main house was almost completely buried by the pile. It would take hours to free. I climbed up, choosing my footing carefully, and worked my way over to the wall. Wasn’t worth trying to clean the place out—would take longer than the house had left, I assumed. Just over my head, seven feet above the debris, a storage loft ran the width of the space. I grabbed hold of it and pulled myself part of the way up, to test the strength of it and see what was up there. More garbage: old toys—mostly dolls—broken and soiled and looming in the darkness. They were staring back at me. A hundred sets of eyes, fixed and pointed at the intruder. I pulled myself the rest of the way up to spite them.
The pile-up in the loft was less daunting than the one below; I could see the floor in places. There was a door leading into the rest up the house up there, directly above the one that was blocked off, and all I had to do was kick a chalkboard and two rotting dollhouses over the edge to open it. Wasn’t even locked. As the door creaked open, though, I heard something. Weight moving ahead of me, big and heavy and shuffling along, dragging its feet like the walking dead and my heart jumped into my throat. Someone was here. No one was here, that…I steadied myself and stepped through the door.
The hallway on the other side was windowless and black. I had to run my left hand along the wall and drag my feet to go any further. The carpeting squished with every step, releasing decay into the air. I pulled my shirt over my face and started opening every door I came across. The hall was slanted downward, steeply, as if inviting me to venture in further, to ignore the rooms on my left and right. Up ahead, the structure moaned in protest. I was hurting it. It was more exhausted than I was. The smell was overwhelming; it wasn’t long before I had to empty my stomach. I could see only a few feet ahead; there was no way to tell how far the hallway went.
The ceiling sloped down more dramatically than the floor, the walls were bent over, and studs were snapped in places. It seemed every other step I’d catch on something: a nail in the ceiling grazed my hair, splinters sticking out of the walls tore my jackets, and my foot got caught in a spot where the floorboard had fallen away. The house coughed, everything shifted an inch—it felt like falling—I steadied myself, freed my foot, and found the door at the end of the hall. Had to use my shoulder to force it open—the jamb was compressed by the partially-collapsed ceiling. Beyond the door, the roof was gone. I was outside again, standing at the top of a staircase and listening to the wind in the trees.
I sat down on the stop step and considered the rest of the flight. After meandering crookedly downward, the stairwell stopped short of the ground floor, broken near the bottom by and uprooted oak. It had fallen over the back wall and rolled until it was nearly upside-down, its massive tangle of roots reaching up toward me in the quiet desperation of a creature too dumb to know it was over. It was only getting colder, and the weight of the accident, the funeral, the noise, was starting to pull me down. I was just so tired. I closed my eyes for a second.
When I opened them I couldn’t see. My face was pressed into something hard by something harder, and the darkness was complete. One of my arms was pinned to the stairs below me, but the other was free. I groped around until I understood. My head was wedged between the tree and the stairs—I must have fallen. It had rained while I was sleeping, my head and neck felt wet, and I could smell the copper of the pipes in the ruined walls. But there was no pain. After the accident there was no pain. Except for mine.
It took a long time, but I found the angle and pulled my head free. The stairwell seemed very tall from below; it vanished into a black and soggy expanse. My mouth was still lined with bitterness and grit, and I found my right arm wasn’t listening to me. A casualty of the fall, but I didn’t need it anymore. The only way past the tree trunk was to climb over—and it kept moving—but the stairs were too tall to consider. The first floor was safer; there was nowhere else to fall.
Beyond the tree—through a hole in the roof-turned-floor—there was a glow. I climbed down through the gap and found walls that were still standing. I was inside again, and I followed the light through a room that was too damaged to identify, and then into a butler’s pantry. It was three times as wide as a man, filled in every imaginable space with cabinets, each one open to display the china and mouse skeletons. The ceiling had mostly fallen free of the rafters. There was a lit candle sitting on the counter, next to a sink that had been buried under plaster and laths. I stared at it for a long time, because it couldn’t be there. No one would climb through that house. It was my house. I picked it up—half in a rage—and it slipped through my slick fingers and fell to the ground, snuffing itself. The darkness was restored and everything felt better. Everything but the intruder. The house agreed with me, grunting it approval, for we had an understanding. I was there to protect it, to usher it quietly to its end, and this person was an enemy of that quiet.
After blindly running my hand through the drawers under the counter, I found something heavy and sharp, traced the blade back to the handle, and gripped it tightly, not allowing my wet fingers to fail. There was only one way through the butler’s pantry: into a narrow corridor that led down a set of stone steps, around a corner, and down further into the cellar kitchen. There was more candlelight there, illuminating a room that—being mostly underground—was better preserved than the rest of the house. The floor was dirt or stone and the walls were the same, and at the back of the space something moved. The enemy. If it—if he or she or it—wanted light, then I wanted dark. I didn’t need to see anymore. I just needed to keep moving. One-by-one, my knife knocked the candles from their sticks, I ground the wicks out with my feet, and the wax coating the bottom of my shoes grew thicker and thicker. It felt like stepping on flesh. The enemy wasn’t moving fast; it wanted me to follow. It didn’t know the house was on my side.
I took off my jacket and left it on the floor. It seemed to be restricting my movements. Stifling me. I was better off without it. Colder, but better. Through the back of the kitchen, more stairs, lower ceilings, more candles. Everything glowed. The hall under the kitchen was a tunnel of smooth, carefully-hewn stones that wound round and down, like a snake burrowed into the earth. The enemy was always just ahead; I caught a flicker of movement around every corner, and I resolved to walk faster. The floor was slick with running water. Every step was more effort than the last. My feet were heavier, the water was deeper, and the air was thicker and reeked of decay and rotting wine. I passed racks and racks of it, all along the hall, bottles freshly broken at the neck and dripping red vinegar into the river. This couldn’t be under the house any longer—it felt like I’d walked for miles—and I just wanted to sit down.
Before long, I realized it was more cave than tunnel. I’d left the racks behind, and water was running down the walls, through shining troughs in ancient limestone deposits and down to the shin-deep, freezing water. I hadn’t seen a candle for a thousand feet or more, but still the cave was illuminated by an unseen light just a little further down the path. It kept winding around and down, on and on. Here was real, palpable, intoxicating silence. The water ran slowly and was barely louder than my breath. Even the stench was dissolving as I walked; the rot, wine, and pipes couldn’t follow me that far. If only I could snuff the light, this would be the place to disappear. The house and I could rest, just as soon as I caught the intruder.
The water was past my knees when the stone hall opened into a large, round chamber, and the floor dropped sharply from there. Straight ahead of me was a person’s back: a long, dark coat hanging down and refusing to float in chest-deep water like its pockets were full of stones. Below the surface, all around him or her or it, were tiny glowing figures on the walls. I couldn’t tell if they were carved in or painted, but there were hundreds of them. Impossibly ornate, tiny people with wide eyes and open mouths that mover ever-so-slightly with each ripple of the freezing water’s surface. Like they were just waiting to say something. The more I stared, the more of them I could see. I leaned in closer to see what they were made of.
Water flooded into my eyes. It was in my nose and ears. Did I fall asleep? Wispy trails of wine were sinking below me, dancing their way toward the bottom as they thinned. I was looking straight down—dead-man’s float—at the hundreds or thousands of glowing figures that stared up from the floor. My muscles were so stiff from the cold, it felt as though I couldn’t move at all, and the knife had fallen from my hand. It was lying four feet below my face in the grip of those creatures of light. I let as much time pass as I could. The air in my lungs went stale. I put my feet back on the ground and my head pulled itself out of the water, leaving the knife on the ground for the figures. The intruder was gone. Beyond the place it had stood, the passage went on through a low and wide opening. It rose only a foot or so above the surface of the water. In the dim light of the glowing figures, I began to see a relief cut into the stone wall surrounding it. It was carved to look like a vast mouth—gaping wide and smiling—drawing the underground river and all the glowing people into itself.
The enemy had gone that way. I was sure of it. My body was numb and shaking with cold and exhaustion. The water stung my eyes. Peace was just a little further down the corridor. I just had to catch the intruder. The tiny faces in the water, I could see then, were staring at the gigantic mouth with a kind of fixed terror as the flowing water pulled them in.
The floor disappeared in blackness when I reached the mouth, and I had to swim to keep my head above the surface. With one arm and no strength left, I followed the low, dark corridor. The glow fades to nothing. The walls pressed in, leaving less and less room for my head. The numbness took over. There was no rotting smell. There was no pain. There was no wine and there was no walking away. I pressed on through the water in perfect, silent darkness. All the faces and all the words faded. I was sure it was just a little further. I closed my eyes.