You ever seen lightning that color, Phil? Doesn’t look right, does it? Watch the trees over the ridge there. You’ll see it again. Lightning just doesn’t have a reason to be that kind of color and it doesn’t have a reason to be hitting that same spot over and over, either.
Oh, hell. Don’t look so worried. We’re safe here in the station. Probably. You know how the old marshal used to pass the time when we got stuck in a storm just like this one?
You guessed it. It’s story time.
Listen to that rain, Phil. Listen to the wind howl through that crack in the door which, by the way, I told you to fix last summer. What do we pay you for? Measuring bear shit? Anyway, on a night just like this a park ranger from the Portal where all those car campers pluck fish out of a stocked pond realized he might be a bit out of his depth away from all that, at least a hundred miles deep into the high country. Let’s call him Earl. He was getting a little older even then, with knees that didn’t work quite like they used to, sunken knuckles, a little curve to his back and black stubble going white all over the place.
He was a mean old shit, this Earl. He wasn’t any kind of “can I see your permit please” park ranger. He had a nice easy gig, watching the parking lot at the Portal most times, and he got bored of it. He wanted to go for a little jaunt out deep into the mountains.
Boy, was that a mistake.
Not too far over the first few passes, the storm hit. Winds whipping at 60 miles or more. Hail stripping poor Earl’s scalp clean off, just about. The whole thing came out of nowhere from a clear blue sky, so quick it was a wonder he got down off the pass before the lightning started. We lost a Scout to that storm. Lightning took a fat branch off a pine and it crushed one of the poor little dudes in his sleep, right through his tent. Sometimes people die out here, Phil, but we don’t ever like for it to be one of them.
Yeah, I know that really happened.
We are telling stories, Phil. Don’t look so worried. Just listen.
Earl found some cover in a bunch of trees and he was hunkered down when the woman appeared. She drifted through the trees and out of the hail like the wind whipping her hair around and around was just a nice summer breeze. Lightning crashed behind her and Earl saw a face that made his breath stick in his throat.
“Help me,” she said. Hail hit her and bounced off.
“Come in out of the storm, ma’am,” said Earl, with a gesture toward the little shelter he had set up. He offered a cup of hot coffee with more than a little schnapps thrown in there.
This woman couldn’t find her kid, she said. Little lad, maybe 13 or so.
Earl asked if they were with the Scouts. She looked deep into his eyes for a long time and Earl got this real weird feeling, like someone had just spun his brain all the way around.
“Yes,” she said.
Earl assured this lady that he would find her kid, but he wasn’t optimistic. He thought maybe a bear had got him, or a cougar. Maybe he had slipped and fallen. Earl didn’t want to think these things—like I said, rangers don’t ever like to lose a Scout—but he couldn’t help it.
Probably a bear this high up, he decided.
It wasn’t any kind of bear, Phil. I’ll spoil that for you straight off.
Take a look at that lightning out there, huh? Crazy color. I bet you’ve never seen lightning like that in all your days.
Neither had Earl.
In the morning the storm didn’t quite let up but the hail had turned into a soft rain, at least, and the winds died down enough that Earl didn’t feel he might be thrown off his feet any second. He checked on the woman bundled up in his little shelter, drank a cup of his special coffee, counted out the shells for the .44 stuffed into the top of his bag and set out in the direction of the woman’s last camp.
Yeah, I know a Magnum isn’t exactly park ranger regulation—but I already told you, Earl wasn’t any kind of regulation park ranger.
The first thing he noticed was the valley. Now, you know campers like I do, Phil. If you don’t put up a shitload of signs with huge red letters they’ll camp anywhere—and I do mean anywhere. Ten feet from a cliff. Miles from water, or even smack in the middle of a goddam marsh, with ground as wet as a baby’s ass. This place was on a whole other level. If the woman hadn’t told Earl about this little valley, he would never have found it on the other side of a rather fetid little pond. The path wormed behind a big pile of rocks covered in manzanita and once he got up past all that, the place was totally still.
Not a sound. No wind. No chittering squirrels. Not even the rain made a sound against the rocks or the dirt.
Earl never did find the woman’s camp, but he did find a nice big pile of bear shit and tracks leading up some rocks into the dark mouth of a cave. The rocks looked a little weird here, I might add. Kinda burned. Campers lit fires wherever they pleased, Earl decided, but even so he wasn’t about to hop in that cave sober. He drained what was left in his flask, loosened the bag around his shoulder and flicked on a flashlight before he stepped down into the dark.
Schnapps, of course. I got some right here. Yeah, sure. Get the glasses.
Cheers! Now pay attention.
The cave went a little farther back and a little farther down than most caves in the high country. Not all of them are like the California Caverns, you know, with long twisting passages and stalactites and all that crap, but this one was. The rocks started to look a little strange, too—shiny almost, like metal. Some of them reflected the light from Earl’s flashlight with little lights of their own and the floor was awful smooth, like the bottom of a lava tube. At the end of it all was a little crack in the wall, and through that Earl found himself in a cave almost perfectly round, like someone had measured before cutting it out.
It was in this place that he found the bear, backed into the far side of the chamber, looking right at him. Its fur didn’t look quite right. It had dark eyes fixed on Earl already like it had known he was coming. It didn’t bob or weave its head back and forth like a pissed off real bear would have. It didn’t grunt or stand up. It just stood there, surrounded by…something.
Bones. Little bones. Larger bones that might have belonged to a dog. And also, bones topped with skulls that might have had faces attached at one time.
Oooh. I know. Scary, right? Just wait.
About the time Earl began to wonder what in the hell kind of bear this was, glaring at him with black eyes from the far end of the chamber, the thing began to change. Those eyes widened and bulged out of its head until they raised up like the stalks of some kind of slug. Its jaw unhinged and stretched almost to the floor and tongues snaked out—that’s what I said, tongues, as in more than one, reaching out for Earl even from that far away. Earl shit his pants. No shame in that. He dropped his flashlight and whipped his bag off his shoulder but before he could reach inside, that thing had him. It ripped the bag out of his hands and wrapped those tongues around his arms and legs and he had just enough time to see the pile of half-eaten fur and mess that might have been a real bear at one point, before the eyes of the thing drew him in.
You know frog eyes, Phil? Or the eyes of a goat? You ever look at ‘em for a second?
Pretty freaky-deaky, right?
hose eyes aren’t anything compared to the eyes of this thing. They whirled and moved and switched colors and Earl could feel his brain spinning around and around in his head like it had with the woman for a second, but a thousand times worse. He remembered his time in the Gulf War and all the friends he’d lost to bombs or people he’d killed. He remembered scratching the ear of his dog Chomper while the old mongrel breathed its last breath and looked up at Earl with clouded eyes still so full of trust. He remembered his dear old dad with a hand around his neck, squeezing until mom smashed him over the head with a cutting board.
Earl remembered these things and more, all the worst things, a thousand times in a single second and the seconds passed. One. Two. Three.
I don’t know what it was that saved Earl from bat-shit insanity. Maybe he was tough upstairs as well as on the outside. Maybe God stepped in. Maybe he was just too drunk to really comprehend all the hate and pain and misery whirling through his brain in that instant but whatever it was, Earl found a new shape by the chewed-on corpse of the bear, a shape in a blue uniform, a shape like a knocked-out little dude.
The kid. Earl remembered why he was here—the woman. Her boy.
The kid didn’t look hurt. But even if he was, Earl had to call a chopper. He had to get that body out of here. Somehow, Earl got a hunting knife in his hand. He cut at the tongues holding him and when he hit the ground, he bashed his face pretty good but he was focused.
The bag. He had to reach his bag.
God, Earl had never felt his arms were so fuckin’ short in all his life until just then, as he reached bloody fingers out for his bag while the whatever-it-was thrashed and finally made a sound, a shriek like a thousand dying cats. A new mess of tongues shot out of its mouth toward Earl but he whipped out his Magnum and as many shells as he could carry in one fist, and fired blind behind him while he ran screaming out of the cavern through the dark, out through the burned valley and around the fetid pond, back up the mountain to his camp and up a tree where he huddled in the branches drooling like a monkey scared out of its goddam mind.
I don’t know if he killed the whatever-it-was, Phil. Maybe he did—or, maybe it’s still out there. You’ll have to let me finish my story.
Here, have another drink.
The woman woke up and Earl screamed when she climbed out of their little makeshift shelter and called up to him. He had forgotten all about her. The rain had stopped but lightning still flashed over the not-so-distant valley and a deep cold had set in, the kind of cold you only get in the high country. Earl found himself shivering so bad that when he finally got control of himself and tried to climb down from the tree to speak with the woman, he slipped and almost broke his arm clean in half when he hit the ground.
He thought he had, but the woman bent to lay hands on his arm and Earl felt a warmth like the glow of a good campfire flow through him until the pain died down.
“It’s only sprained,” she said, and then, “Earl…I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Earl didn’t respond. He pushed himself up into a sitting position and opened his white-knuckled fist to count the .44 shells that were still clutched tight in there. Three. He flipped open the chamber on his Magnum.
He started to load. His hands shook so bad he could barely hold the shells. The woman watched him for a while before she asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going back in there.” Earl thought somebody else must have said this for him, but it was out there, now. He had to commit. One shell went in.
The woman stopped him with her hand on the third shell.
“I can sense your fear,” she said. “You’re still going back?”
Earl liked her eyes. He saw warmth and compassion. He saw concern. Most of all, he saw the pain of a mother whose child was still out there, somewhere, in danger.
“People die out here, sometimes,” Earl said. “But we don’t like for it to be a Scout.”
Yeah, you think you know where this is going next, huh Phil? Get your mind out of the gutter. I know it was you who put that Heavy Metal calendar up on the wall.
Just listen, and try not to get too excited.
The woman slid Earl’s third .44 shell down the neck of her Under Armour.
She pressed her lips against Earl’s and he remembered two details in this moment more than any others—the sense of peace, in spite of all he’d been through in the last day or so, and the warmth that soaked through the woman’s skin into his. When they finally pulled apart, Earl caught the woman’s gaze and remembered all sorts of things he had forgotten. He remembered the first time he’d kissed a girl behind the bleachers at his school. He remembered his mother singing happy birthday and the feel of the wind through the open window of his jeep.
“I didn’t know quite what we were dealing with before,” said the woman, and she plucked Earl’s.44 shell from the neck of her shirt to give it back. Earl held it for a moment and watched the way a weird new light danced beneath the metal. “I thought maybe my boy had just gotten lost. I didn’t expect it to be…this.”
The woman paused for a moment.
“I know you can get him back,” she whispered.
Earl shoved the glowing shell into his Magnum and snapped the chamber shut. He said nothing. He just turned, and began the hike back down to the burned out valley.
Because remember, I told you.
Earl wasn’t any kind of regulation park ranger.
Pow! Haha, you like that one, huh Phil? Made you jump right out of your pants. Hey, don’t look at me like that. You’re cleaning up your own mess if you piss yourself. That thunder’s getting closer. I guess I’d better hurry it up, before it tears this place down.
When Earl returned to the cave, the whatever-it-was seemed surprised. It actually made a sound as it swiveled a shapeless head around to stare, dragging its long jaw on the ground. Earl tried not to comprehend how ugly this thing was. His knees shook. His Magnum rattled in his grip but at least, for whatever reason, the thing hadn’t seen him coming this time.
The bones of the real bear had been picked clean, and the whatever-it-was had dragged the kid in the uniform over to its feet. Whatever Earl did, he would have to do it, fast.
He raised his Magnum.
And he fired, at the exact second the thing’s eyes began to change, and Earl felt his brains going again the way of a stirred slushie.
You ever see those old picture-within-a-pictures that were popular in the 70s, the ones that if you looked at them real close just went on forever and ever? Yeah, like the cover of that Pink Floyd album we’ve got in the other room? The Droste Effect, I think it’s called. Well, what happened next was something like that. Earl stared into the eyes of that thing and the shell from his Magnum sank into the goo of its face and the light turned its eyes to look at each other, as well as at him. Earl found himself lost in his own memories of the war, of his father, of his many other miseries…but also thrown in there were a whole mess of new horrors.
Earl felt pain all over, as a mob of hideous shapes jabbed and pulled him with hooks sunk into his flesh away from a familiar burrow and into some sort of crate.
An eternity of dark and cold came after. When the darkness finally lifted, Earl felt fear inside of some unfamiliar place as the hideous shapes screamed and flailed all around him. Walls and floors split open. Alarms screamed in pitches that made his ears ring and he began to see stars through the fractured hull of wherever he was. Earl remembered flame, flame everywhere cooking him alive, and an impact that left him broken and half-mad with pain. Earl knew this memory wasn’t his. The only familiar part had been the mountain, and a nice view of a secluded valley—the same burned-up valley he had climbed up into, just a few minutes before.
This thing hadn’t come from the high country at all, Earl knew.
It came from the high, high country.
Yeah, fuckin’ outer space, Phil. Do I have to spell it out for you? It doesn’t really matter where it came from anyway, though, does it? It was here.
Have some more schnapps. We’re almost done.
On and on this went, a memory within a memory within a memory, until the creature shrieked and turned its eyes away from each other with such force they seemed to break open and ooze red down its face. Earl’s glowing magnum shell shone brighter and a moment before he thought he might rip out his own eyes as well, his memories changed.
The light from that shell brought Earl back from the edge in the same way it blinded the whatever-it-was. He went through a whole host of good stuff, stuff that left him feeling warm inside for a long time after. Most of all he remembered his time with the woman back at his camp—the feel of her lips, the taste of her, the warmth of her skin against his—the way she had looked deep into his eyes when he’d made up his mind to come back to the cave.
He raised up his Magnum again and plugged the creature two more times right in the face. He jumped forward and heaved the kid over one shoulder—and he got the fuck out of there, pursued by the sounds of a thousand eternal torments.
It’s just a story, Phil. Take it easy. Lightning’s getting pretty crazy outside though, huh?
Hey, do me a favor. Go to that drawer. Open it up.
Yeah, I know there’s a Magnum in there. Bring it to me.
Quit shaking so damn much! You’re going to drop it. I need you to go through the shells in there, too. They’ve gotten a little jumbled, over the years. Pick out the ones with a brighter tip while I finish up.
I don’t know what happened to the woman and her kid after that. Earl returned to his camp with the little Scout in tow. Little dude didn’t say much the whole way—he was dazed from his time in the caves, I think—but he lit right up when he saw his mom, huddled over the campfire. Earl had never seen more tears or hugging in all his life. He spent a few more nights with them at a nearby lake, until the night of that meteor storm we had a few years back. Earl looked up at all the shooting stars and when he looked back down, he was alone.
Just like that. Still, those were the best few days of my life, I think.
I mean his life. Earl’s life.
Give me the rest of the schnapps—and the cup. The big cup.
Ok, I think that’s everything. The story’s over, Phil, so listen up.
I’m going outside.
Yeah, I noticed it’s still storming balls out there. Yeah, that lightning has gotten pretty goddam close. Try to focus. I’m going outside, and I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Turn off the lights. Bolt the door. Yes, all the bolts. When I get back, I will knock on that door three times and I will tell you the following.
Earl wasn’t any kind of regulation park ranger.
If you don’t hear me say those exact words in that exact order, Phil, I want you to stay very still. I want you to creep to a dark place and stay there. Don’t make a sound. Don’t turn the lights on. Because whatever the fuck it is out there yelling and banging on that door if it doesn’t say those words exactly the way I said them just now, it isn’t me. Trust me and God above when I say you do not want that thing in here with you.
Jesus, Phil! Take a breath, man, you look like you’re about to pass out! I was just pulling your leg. There’s nothing out there for you to worry about. A bear, maybe. You don’t need to act so scared, like a rat in the tiger cage.
Unless I don’t come back.
If I don’t come back, you can be just as scared as you want.