Chapter 36: The Message
Hours later, with Paradise but an unpleasant memory from a hundred miles ago, we finally stopped for a rest. We had followed the highway north, hoping to catch the interstate. It didn’t take an expert to know we needed to find somewhere to refuel before we reached Minneapolis. At least, we did if we wanted to try to make it the rest of the way in the truck. Despite the risk of finding no fuel, it seemed our best option for the moment.
Just over the South Dakota border, we found a town so small it didn’t appear to have a name. Rick had been leaning in through the small back window for the past few miles, commenting on how he was famished and sick of sitting in a metal truck bed. The small town seemed as good as any other to stop and scavenge for supplies.
As we pulled into that tiny town, we were ready for anything. The town itself seemed to be little more than half a dozen houses and half as many trees. There were no signs of people in this place. Many of the buildings seemed like it had been abandoned for months, possibly longer.
We pulled into the town’s gas station. It seemed the most likely place to find what we needed, things to supplement our meager supplies. Bobbi pulled up to a pump and jumped out. Without a word, she fiddled with the dials on it. I climbed out of the truck too, but stumbled once my feet hit the ground. Clearly, I was still a tad unsteady on my feet but I supposed I was feeling pretty okay considering the beating I had received. Putting a hand on the truck to steady myself, I heard Rick hit the ground behind me. I didn’t turn to look, but I guessed from the scrape of his feet on the gravel he was walking around the side of the building.
Meanwhile, Bobbi kicked the pump. “Damned thing’s not working!”
“Maybe there’s a way to turn it on inside?” I glanced between the pump and the tiny shack of a store and nodded. “You wait here. I’ll go in and see if I can find a switch or something.”
Bobbi nodded, leaning on the pump and getting comfortable as she expected a bit of a wait. Unsure if that was a sign of her doubt I could find a way to get it working or confidence that I would given time. Either way, I walked over to the station’s entrance. I kept my eyes open for anything, but didn’t honestly expect anything from this abandoned town. Call it foolishness or desperate hope, but I had convinced myself that there would be no more surprises today.
I pushed open the dusty glass door and recoiled instinctively. There was a heavy and noxious scent which permeated the air in the tiny building. It reeked of wild animal and rotten food, with a hint of something hard to identify. I shook off my revulsion, reminded myself that I had seen and smelled worse in the last few months. Hell, I had seen worse in the last few hours.
Instead, I pushed forward into the store proper. It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light filtering through the dirty windows. Once they had, I looked around the tiny building and searched for any sign of a switch or button which could possibly control the pumps outside. I saw narrow shelves which sat empty and coated with dust. Coolers near the back were also empty, except for a few small piles of decomposing filth collected in the bottom. Lights hung from the ceiling, but each and every bulb was cracked or broken. The shards twinkled in the small bit of light which fought its way through the dirty windows.
I was honestly disgusted with that dirty little building. I had begun to notice a trend. Each abandoned building seemed somehow more ancient and untouched than the last, and each one seemed impossibly more distant than the few short months since everything had gone to hell.
I pushed through the narrow aisles and headed for the counter wedged against the right wall. It seemed likely that any controls for the pumps would most likely be found near the register. Even the counter was small, with a polished linoleum top which would have shined if not for the thick layer of dust and grime that now covered it. I noticed a few old handprints in the dirt, but thought nothing of them as I walked around behind the counter and stepped over a piece of unfolded cardboard strewn across the floor.
I looked around the counter and swiftly identified the large switchboard which dominated the panel next to the register. It seemed newer than nearly every other item in that small shop, by at least a decade. It was covered in buttons and dials and readouts, none of which were labeled or marked in any way. I pushed a few of the buttons, and nothing happened. I searched every corner of the box, running my hands over every seam and button, but nothing happened.
“Tha’s not gonna work.” A voice came from behind me, deep and thick, and caused me to practically jump out of my skin.
I whipped around to find myself face to face with an old Native American man. His hair was in a thin grey braid that dangled down to his mid back, with streaks of salt and pepper highlights woven through their strands. His face was cracked and cragged, broken into vast valleys and canyons which wrinkled his thick and leathery skin. His eyes were an intense dark brown and resembled deadened coals burning out from a field of white. He wore a large plaid shirt which seemed at least two sizes too large for his withered frame. His pants appeared to be little more than jeans, but jeans which had long ago worn down to barely more than ragged white fibers. His feet were bare, revealing knobby toes and disturbingly long toenails. This man somehow loomed me, such was the size of his presence in the room. A feat made all the more impressive when I belatedly noticed he was less than an inch taller than myself.
I bit back the urge to scream and instead released only a surprised squeak as I staggered back into the counter. My flailing hands bumped many of the dead and unpowered buttons, clicking in protest like an angry cicada. My eyes widened with shock and fear and my mouth began to work wordlessly as I tried to figure out where he had come from and if I was in danger.
“I won’t stop ya’ from tryin’, but I can tell ya’ now that that board won’ help you one bit.” He pointed at the board’s dead and empty displays. “There ain’t been power flowing through that thing in years. Didn’t even take the end of the world for that beast ta’ stop workin’” He grinned broadly, revealing yellowed teeth and sending a wave of terrible halitosis over me, which caused me to gag.
I looked him in the eye and nodded impotently. I was at a loss for words, my eyes darted all around as I sought a means of escape.
The man, misinterpreting my wandering eyes, laughed out a wave of his foul breath. “Don’tcha worry your pretty little head. I’m no ghost. I was just dozin’ in the bathroom, wishin’ this place still had running water. Now, that? That took the end of the world. Sen’ everythin’ ta’ hell and took indoor plumbin’ with it.” He shook his head, saddened.
“Uhm… I’m sorry?” I stammered nervously, shrugging at him helplessly.
“Nah. Not yer’ fault.” He leaned in close, his foul breath intensifying at close range, one eye opened much larger than the other. He looked me over, focusing particularly at my face. “Or is it…” He held the pose, with me smile nervously, for a long moment before laughing heartily. “Ya’ gotta lighten up, girlie!”
I laughed along with him, still nervous as hell, but slowly relaxing. “I’m sorry. But, you have no idea the weird crap that we’ve been through lately.”
“Oh, I can imagine, I’d guess.” He leaned back against the counter, still blocking my escape from behind the counter, but being friendly about it. “Th’ whole world’s gon’ crazy, ain’t it?” He stared at m, expectantly, awaiting an answer.
“I’m not sure, to be honest. Everywhere we’ve been has been kinda ‘crazy,’ yeah. I don’t know about everywhere else. We kind of hoped that it was only out around Denver, but every time we find somewhere ‘normal’ it turns out to be full of weird crap.” I sighed, realizing how much I missed when the world still made sense.
“No kidding? Far as Denver? Might as well be the whole world. Wha’s a few hundred miles, except the whole o’ th’ world?” He nodded sagely. “Methinks this stretches from pole ta pole, ‘cross the whole world. But, the rest o’ th’ world don’t exist anymore. Except when people are there ta see it.”
“What we see comes ta life, is what I figure.” He pointed outside. “My neighbors all took off weeks ago. The world went silent. They took that ta mean there were none left ou there. They took what was left a’ John’s horses and rode away, headin’ west to the Hills.”
“Why? Did they think they’d find civilization out there? We didn’t see any in the mountains…”
“Nah, nothin’ like that. See, while back there was this prophecy. If everybody respected the old ways, the white folks would stop takin’ our land. If we did what this one guy said, we’d be free from the disrespect an’ treachery of the Americans and their tricksy president, and we’d get the rest back. ‘E called it th’ Ghost Dance, and the tribes waited around for over a decade, waiting for it to work. Nothin’ doin’. Time kept tickin’ and our places kept shrinkin’ and our people kept dyin’.
“Then Jessie, after th’ world wen crazy, she got thinkin’. Maybe, jus’ maybe, we hadn’t waited long enough. See, it’s been nearly a century since th’ last o’ the Ghost Dancer’s gave up. Maybe we jus’ got the timin’ wrong, she says. They all mounted up and rode west, plannin’ to claim what they thought must be an empty set a’ Hills.”
“But… You don’t think they will?”
“I don’ think it matters. This ain’t a problem for white folks. It ain’t a problem for red folks. It’s a problem for e’eryone. Half o’ my family disappeared on tha’ day, all those months ago. Sure, it cleaned out the white neighbors, but it didn’ jus’ ignore us neither. Th’ worst of it was those who didn’ disappear. Some twisted an’ strange, becomin’ monsters or spirit people.”
“Spirits?” I was curious. Part of me realized I would have once been incredulous, but now I only wanted to learn more and I had yet to meet a spirit. When I considered the possibility, I realized it didn’t surprise me.
“Sorta’. Not like ghosts or nothin’. Some became one with th’ land or th’ animals. They became talkin’ grass or creatures o’ equal part man and beast. They moved on from here, headin’ north ta’ meet up with others of their kind. They said they heard voices on the wind calling out. Tha’ they would heal the world of its ills. Dunno if it’ll work or not, but hey… More power to ‘em for tryin’”
I nodded in agreement. At least they were trying something. Didn’t matter if it worked or not, it was the effort. I glanced out the dirty window and I caught a glimpse of Bobbi angrily tapping her feet as she talked with Rick outside, it was only then that I realized how long I had been in the store. I glanced up at the old man, ready to ask him if he would let me out, but he interrupted me before I could.
“‘Course, between you and me, I think it’ll work, but only if they manage to pull enough folks together on it.” He leaned forward again, getting really close to my face. His fetid breath almost caused me to gag, which only made him chuckle lightly to himself. “Way I see it? The rules’ve changed. It ain’t some God or Great Spirit or whatever ya call it callin’ the shots anymore. It’s folks like you and me. Those’a us with a strong enough sense o’ self to still be us and the will ta’ define the world. Since things changed, I found myself wit’ the sight o’ the beyond. I ken see the things that are, the things that were, and the things that could be. An’ I see you an’ I see yer healin’ touch. We’re th’ ones that gotsta fix this world. Believe you me.” He laughed, but it sounded strange in a way I couldn’t quite describe.
He leaned back, placed a firm hand on the counter and caused a distinct clacking sound as it struck the counter. “Ya see, we find what we need, when we need it, girl. What we can’t find, we make, because we believe we must. If the Spirit People have the will, they can fix this place, but not without folks like us to sew up the remainin’ cracks. I think you’d do well ta’ find the Spirit People. They’re up near Chamberlain way, last I heard, give’r take.” He pushed himself up and walked around the counter. Before contiuing, he glanced down to where his hand had lain moments ago. “All’s you hav’ta get there, is find the key to what you need.” He chuckled to himself.
I followed his gaze down and saw a long and thin brass key laying on the counter in the center of his handprint in the dust. I glanced between his grin and the key before snatching it up and dashing for the door. When I reached the threshold between the commercial cavern, I turned to thank the old man. All that I could see was an empty and dusty store. Everything looked exactly as abandoned I had found it minutes previous, but for a single handprint on the dirty counter. I blinked a few times before muttering a soft, “Thank you” and left the store.