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Where else would we go? We were children of well-to-do fathers with Silicon Valley success stories. Between semesters of our ivy league education, three of my friends and I went backpacking through Europe. I couldn’t tell you why exactly. Now, decades later, I think about what I wanted back then: to prove myself to somebody. To show that my eyes weren’t floating, as my dad used to say of people who were so full of shit that their eyeballs floated in their head.
A man has secrets. And this is mine, one I intended to take to the grave. But I won’t, seeing as how my lungs ain’t doing so hot and my doctor says that that grave is coming at me like a windshield hurls towards a bug. I figure if what I experienced on that backpacking trip makes me crazy, well, no better time than now to confess my insanity. What reputation have I got to preserve?
I was too drunk or too hungover to remember which city all this shit started in. When I woke alone in our cushy hotel suite–not at all a version of roughing it which stunk of rich kids with disposable money–and saw that hand-written note on the nightstand. Was I in Barcelona, Madrid, Amsterdam, Berlin? They all blurred together for me like a melted neapolitan ice cream bar.
I didn’t see anyone in the other bed. I propped myself up on my elbow to listen for my friends. After pawing around on the carpet to find my glasses, which were on the floor halfway under the bed, I grabbed the note:
They’re not there.
We have plans of making them suffer.
Come to the old Cow Skull Inn up the mountain.
Don’t waste time or we’ll send their body parts to you one by one.
Sure we were lazy in terms of facing up to our personal demons, but my friends and I were brutal when it came to pulling pranks. And this was April 12th. My birthday. So I didn’t have a reaction to the note, other than it deserved kudos for creativity. I was expecting something like that. I even slept a few more hours before getting dressed and heading toward the mountain, figuring I’d play along. Maybe there’d even be a surprise birthday party set up for me at that inn, I thought.
I paid extra for a ride on the heated cable car lift to get up the mountain instead of a mule or a jeep. This trip to show off just how rugged I could be hadn’t played out that way, that is until later that night. I wasn’t given any other choice but to fight something unspeakable by then.
When I exited the lift, there was a knee-high stone wall outlining a path to the Cow Skull Inn. An old woman with white hair, wearing a black lace babushka, was sitting on the wall. She made eye contact. Without moving her cloudy gaze off of me, she reached into a paper bag next to her and threw a handful of slop on the ground. A crowd of crows gathered and snapped up the bits of whatever the mixture was, maybe fish and meal of some sort. The old woman hacked and hocked a glob of black phlegm on the path. The crows ate it too. I grimaced in judgement of her, the way the snob that I was back then would.
“Looking for your friends?” she said. I didn’t bother to ask how she knew about it. This elaborate performance had to be part of the prank.
“Is this the part where I get scared and beg you to tell me what you’ve done with them?” I replied, sounding like a true asshole.
“No, boy.” Her voice changed then. It was huskier than seemed possible for a woman so petite and shriveled. She leaned toward me. “This is the part where I take your old life and put a line through it.” She pointed her index finger with a yellowed, knife-like fingernail and drew a swift horizontal line in the air. Not gonna lie, that shook up my cockiness a little. But I wouldn’t let on. I convinced myself to ignore her eccentricity and that my friends must be at the bar just inside.
The old woman led me–slowly because she seemed in pain or weak and could only amble along–to a room inside the inn. There was tea there ready for me, which she insisted I had to try, and we each had a cup. She was right. It was unlike anything else I’ve tried. Although it was barely dusk, I couldn’t keep my eyes open for some reason nor care to wonder about my friends anymore. I fell asleep on the bed.
A quiet growl woke me sometime later. There was a snowy wolf next to me on the bed. I was so startled that I rolled onto the floor. The adrenaline eased up when I noticed the wolf had laid down and seemed docile. Maybe it was domesticated, I thought. I turned around to the rocking chair where I’d remembered the old woman was sitting before I fell asleep but she wasn’t there.
“No one else is going to stop him if we don’t.” I heard someone say. It was a husky voice. I wasn’t sure who spoke. No one else was in the room. So I froze.
“I’m sorry. Don’t be scared. It’s only three of them and three of us for the sake of many,” the voice said. The snowy wolf was standing on the bed staring at me. “And I don’t think you’d argue that your life is lacking purpose. I can give you that.” The wolf’s head moved and bobbed in correspondence with the words. Was this animal talking to me? I scrambled away from it in a backwards crab crawl and banged my head on the wall. The wolf lunged towards me in some last-ditch effort of strength then collapsed on my lap in a heap. It stopped breathing.
And I swear by the bent heavens above, something rose up out of its dead mouth. It was like one of those specks of dust you spot floating in the sunlight of your quiet living room, except it was of every color my feeble mind could imagine and some that it couldn’t. And it was glowing.
The speck rushed towards my face. I don’t know how else to say this but, I felt as if the dust-speck thing had gone inside of me. I seized and writhed. My body wasn’t entirely my own then. Within seconds I was running through forests in the darkest part of night. Running on all four of my limbs. Running so far that it was as if we would find the edge of creation.
Layer on top of layer, I knew myself. I was an old white-haired woman. I was a snowy wolf. I was a scared and spoiled college kid.
I arrived at a secluded mud-and-log cottage that whichever of Us had driven me to.
The Me that should be scared was scared enough to shake all the marbles from a man’s head. But the other parts of Me already knew the beast-man that was inside the cottage. They knew its tapered pterodactyl-like limbs, its foot-long whiskers, its veiny ears like a cross between a bat’s and an elephant’s. The stench of its drool. And its hunger. My God, the hunger.
I recognized tattered fragments of my three friends’ clothing at the beast-man’s feet. And when I noticed the decapitated head of my closest friend behind the beast-man–the one I’d carved pumpkins with in childhood–my anger joined the rest of Me and We launched Ourselves onto that evil thing. We knew just where to bite and where to thrash to do him in. I mean, I didn’t know, but I didn’t fight Us in doing it and I understood (by way of the other Us’ thoughts) the chaos the beast-man had caused for decades, and the power it had accumulated in hopes of carrying on in its collection of eating and taking that which didn’t belong to anyone but God.
Before long, the dust-speck thing rose from the beast’s carcass. It hovered, glowing red, then disappeared. I remembered the voice from the inn room: It’s only three of them and three of us… My three friends to occupy the beast, and three of us conjoined–the only way to fight the power of such a creature.
I can’t be sure, but I believe it was days of battling. No, it was a war. One inside somewhere I couldn’t reach. And I ran and I paced and I rolled on the ground in the forest, away from the cottage. I have no memory of how it happened, but I fought myself until I knew myself as only me again. Believe me or don’t. I knew what I had to do. I’d had visions of the conjoined layers of me existing in an eternal smoldering enslavement if I hadn’t returned to the one self that I had been born.
You’d be amazed how well a man can lie to himself, or to the authorities or to his family or to his friends when he has to. I told my lies about that backpacking trip and my having no knowledge of where my friends disappeared to so many times that I really believed it. Even now.
But facing that eternal crossover we all have to, as I am now with my terminal diagnosis and all, that has a way of squeezing all fathomless truth from every depth of you. And I believe I’m all squeezed dry now.