He could feel every bump. Every bit of asphalt conducted via tire and frame as the rickety Honda plunged through the inky dark.
He regretted the decision to take the backroads. Though in all honesty, it was more necessity than decision.
The freeway required a speed he did not find reassuring.
Roland sighed at the trees that pressed in on either side.
Trees that threatened to swallow him into some inner darkness. To extract him from his frail conveyance like a Spaniard plucks sardines.
The family gathered each October to celebrate every precious birthday as his aunt reached a hundred years of age.
Somehow, despite his financial limitations he managed to drive the five hundred or so miles from Virginia to Vermont. He did it on his own.
This was important to him. As the black sheep of the family, he staunchly loathed anything that could be perceived as assistance. He was fine with them thinking he was an asshole, a hippie, a freak. But, a bum, Nah, they were the bums, with their maxed-out credit cards and permanently stoned crotch fruit.
So, every October he loaded a duffel and cooler into his self serviced 1983 Honda Civic and left his tiny Richmond apartment behind. Stopping once or twice to stay in even tinier motel rooms.
The last trek of the trip was always the most pleasant. The deep wooded hills of New England in autumn were absolutely ethereal.
That’s where he found himself now. Though the sensation coursing through his rattled frame was anything but pleasant.
Night had never caught him here before. But, a flat caused a delay that meant his usual leisurely pace needed to be doubled.
He hoped to reach his father’s house by dawn.
That first grey finger of twilight seemed far away. Preposterously far away.
The night was like the road that rattled through him. An eternal flood that soaked every subatomic space it washed over. He was drowning in darkness.
And then like a bad horror cliché the Honda died. It was a B movie trope that he was hoping wouldn’t come. But come it did.
The alternator was fried. He was well aware that it was critically past its prime. But an evening of fine dining for his and Amy’s anniversary had been prioritized. It was a gamble between the car and his girlfriends pouting over a fifth annual cheap-ass bottle of table wine.
At the time he thought he’d won the gamble. Amy was always out of his league as his friends never tired of informing him. He was probably pushing it with his stingy Bohemianism and it was nice to actually go somewhere besides the park for once.
But now sitting in the eerie silence, inside his tin can, he wasn’t so sure he bet correctly.
Never the panicky Pete, Roland leaned the seat back, rolled down the window, and lit up a cigarette.
He sure as hell wasn’t going to call his WASP clan for help. This he knew for certain.
He did have some prodigious savings despite his meager income. Living like a monk can improve the fortunes of even the most obscure gig guitarists.
He wished he’d used the damned savings to fix the blasted alternator. But, then again rules were rules and it wasn’t an emergency till now.
He opened his flip phone to dial 411 and find a 24-hour towing service.
Of course, there were no bars in the Vermont hills.
Roland was a fatalist and remained unphased. He lit another cigarette and opened the sunroof to survey some of the brightest stars America had to offer.
He decided to try a technique he’d picked up from one of his occultist friends – one that had always served him well.
It was called the wizard’s nod. Or to less pretentious folk – sleeping on it.
Just as he was reaching the threshold of nod his eyes fluttered open.
Did he hear something just now?
It wasn’t really a sound.
More like the suggestion of a sound.
It was a vibration that was impossibly faint. Like a mouse fart from an attic.
This insanely subtle thing, this ghost of a ghost, made him sit bolt upright and listen intently.
Roland hastily tied his long brown hair into a ponytail, his green eyes darting madly round the cave-like pitch, hoping desperately to locate a mundane explanation for his sudden terror.
Nothing…there was nothing.
That edible must still be working its way through his system. Roland shook his head and leaned back. Hoping a few minutes of shut-eye would bring some much-needed clarity.
Waking proved more confusing.
At first, he thought he’d spilled his coffee but the dampness that he felt was the soggy ground.
It was brown, it was green, it was day. A cold and noisy day.
Roland pulled his hoody tighter round himself as the sound of songbirds filled his ears.
There was nothing he could place about this. It was a good quarter-hour before his road trip and the grungy Honda emerged from the mists of memory.
He patted his jeans. ‘Thank Fuck.’ Five Pall Mall’s remained beside a cheap Bic lighter.
As smoke entered his lungs and nicotine hit his brain he was relieved that he had the tools to start a fire and launched into troubleshooting.
It was strange. Normally, when he woke up he was severely dehydrated. Whether from cottonmouth or whiskey he’d always end up so parched his first instinct was to run to the sink.
But he felt none of that now in this…meadow?
‘How the fuck did I end up in a field?’
He shook his head.
He’d never sleepwalked before. In fact, the running joke among friends and family was that he could sleep through the apocalypse.
He noted the dew on the grass and realized that his thirst wouldn’t remain quenched for long.
Rising to his feet he began scanning his surroundings. They really were surroundings, trees surrounded him. At least the 180 or so degrees that he could pan his head.
“What the hell…” he muttered as he realized his feet were stuck.
He looked down. There was no muck, they weren’t sunken into the grassy floor, no pain suggested any physical reason for his present immobility. He could wiggle his toes.
Then he thought he heard something. The sound was like the ghost of a ghost. A low hum…and dread filled him.
“Shit…” he said as adrenaline provided a solution. He untied his chucks and left them behind as he hurtled towards the wood.
Running into an unknown forest that you’d just woken up in doesn’t seem like a very good idea for long. Especially once a smoker runs out of breath.
Roland leaned against a fir and cursed his cold damp socks which he removed as he panted and listened. The sound was gone.
Had he even heard one? He wasn’t sure.
But he was sure that he wanted to get his feet off the cold damp ground. So he sat on a fallen tree gathering them into his slightly oversized jeans.
‘What the fuck am I going to do…’ he lamented as he realized he didn’t have a cell phone.
And then he heard voices calling his name.
At first, he thought he’d fallen asleep again.
But, then the voices came again. At least a dozen of them, male and female… “Patrick….Patrick….Patrick Roland!”
He heard dogs barking.
‘A search party?’
He ran in the direction yelling, “I’m here…over here!”
But no one responded. Something that he found odd since they couldn’t have been more than a few hundred yards away.
The trees thinned as he ran and then he saw them…an assortment of Rangers, search and rescue, police officers, and even several family members.
All calling for him.
He ran to his sister… “Sam! Hey, hey! I’m right here…” But she was staring right past him…looking scared and concerned…calling his name.
He was just a few hundred feet away when he realized there was something wrong with her…something wrong with all of them.
They were all sort of translucent…and distorted…sort of staticky looking.
He just stood dumbstruck until a german shepherd trotted over and sat down right beside him.
Tentatively he reached out his hand. Even though the dog was weird and distorted he could feel it sniffing then licking his hand.
“Burger!” A flummoxed looking ghostly cop yelled as he approached. “What the hell is wrong with you dog.”
“Hey, officer can you hear me!” Roland screamed just feet from his face causing no response from the cop and a cock of the dog’s head.
“Cmon…boy…” The officer said tugging on Burger’s collar. But the dog refused to move.
“Damn it…” the cop cursed as more searchers gathered round to see what was the matter.
And then the low hum resumed.
Once again Roland was inconsolably terrified. And so was Burger.
With a whimper, both Roland and the dog dashed away at a madman’s pace.
Roland kept running even as he passed his car.
He was surprised that his bare feet neither ached nor showed any sign of wear as he and Burger stopped to rest beside a river.
The shepherd drank and with a shrug of the shoulder so did Roland.
But there wasn’t any time for further bonding.
The hum returned as did the fear. And the pair ran along the river bank till they reached some shallows, which they instinctively crossed, subconsciously hoping that putting a river between them and whatever would help matters.
But the hum persisted and the only seemingly reasonable thing to do was to take shelter in a boulder field.
Roland crouched behind a huge granite slab with Burger whimpering by his feet.
The sound was gone and he’d just caught his breath when a weird but merry whisper echoed through the stones.
The dog started a low growl.
The whistling stopped.
“Hullo…hullo….who’s there!” A strange voice called.
Roland was unsure whether he should answer. He craned his head around the boulder…and his jaw hit the floor.
‘Is…is that…is that a fucking GNOME?”
He rubbed his eyes just as the pair that belonged to the minuscule man fell upon him.
‘He’s dressed like god damned Da Vinci.’ Roland’s brain expostulated taking in the hat and trousers.
“You…you can see me, boy?”
“Hmm…well that’s no good.”
“Shit,” Roland said backing away and almost tripping over Burger who had his head slunk low still emitting that bassy growl.
“Hey…hey…it’s alright…I ain’t gonna harm ya.” The anomaly said as it began to approach them.
“Uh-huh…and…and..who…who are you?”
“My name is Plinth. And yours?”
“Well, nice to meet ya…but you’re gonna have to calm that hound of yours. They don’t like us.”
“Me brothers and I.”
“Yes, these are our mines. Cats here tend to treat us ok I suppose cause they’re the same as the cats back home. Dogs not so much.” He replied stopping a yard or so shy of the pair.
“Never ye mind that. Just make sure that critter behaves and tell me how ya got here.”
So in slow awkward bursts, Roland informed this…gnome…Plinth about the sound and his misadventure.
Plinth listened with rapt attention and after a moment of silent consideration nodded his bearded head.
“Yes…that does happen from time to time. Most unfortunate accident.”
“In every sense of the word. You sort of won a cosmic lottery there. Just happening to be in the wrongest place at the wrongest time.”
Again the gnome nodded.
“This here is our mine.” He motioned. “But I am not a miner. I am a lawman.”
“I suppose ye could say that.”
The hum started again. Burger looked at Roland in horror…as if in apology..and dashed away.
Plinth laughed. “Poor critter…he’ll be fine…I know you’re as scared as he is but you can’t outrun it.”
“Uhuh…no time to explain it really…but sometimes it slips through…it’s an elemental.”
Roland shook his head in confusion.
“You need to come with me.”
He was uncertain about this.
“Look boy…the thing is playing with you..do you want to find out what happens when it gets bored.”
“Where are we going…”
“To my oscillator…”
“Never you mind…God you lot are thick….”
Plinth led him to the mouth of a cave guarded by two stern gnomes decked out in conquistador gear. It would have been funny if he wasn’t terrified.
“Wait here.” Plinth said as he conversed with the watchful guards in a weird staccato language.
“Sof Va Dep Rim Wau Oa Em.”
“Tof Na Uil.”
“Chi Sla Joa Ier.”
With that, he disappeared into the depths and returned with a strange cube in tow.
“Follow me.” Plinth said as he manned the wheelbarrow eastward.
It’s not like he had a choice. The hum seemed to have grown more persistent.
They emerged into a clearing just beyond the boulder field.
With surprising strength Plinth pulled the stone device twice his size from the cart and placed it on the ground.
“Just turn around and look towards the blasted river.”
Roland found it hard to look away from the beautifully crafted obsidian box which glowed with a subtle bluish light emanating from some sort of crystalline pyramid within.
But the hum made him obey.
“O I A I A D” Plinth proclaimed with the same staccato cadence.
Roland’s stomach jumped as if he were on a roller coaster.
“Not that you’ll remember but you monkeys need to stop tinkering with her.” Plinth called after him.
“Oh…oh my God are you alright?”
Linda was shocked to see anybody this far in the wilderness.
The youth lifted his half-lidded gaze.
She switched on her walkie… “There’s a kid here…”
A crackly static confused voice responded shortly, “A kid?”
“Well…young man…could you stop making me feel old.”
“Haha…ok professor…what’s he doing out here?”
“Hey…” the gray-haired woman said gently placing a weathered hand on the youth’s shoulder.
“Where..where’s my car?”
“Nearest road is thirty miles from here,” Linda answered noticing that his feet were bare.
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