TWO STICKS AUDIO LOG/JOURNAL
7/9 – Red’s Meadow
A girl in the corner was strapped to a chair by two sets of paracord. She had a belt around her mouth and her face was swollen and purple and her eyes were red and puffy from tears. Another boy beside her was tapping the out of tune keys of an old stand-up piano. He was playing Silent Night. Is it Christmas? No. It’s July. It’s only July. Five months till Christmas.
There were others. Several others.
I didn’t see them. Not at first. The only thing I could register was that scratching against the front door. Nails peeling splinters from old wood. Everett and Marcus hammered the door shut with 2X4’s. The girl on the chair wriggled against her restraints but was otherwise still. The place was lit by an oil lantern and three candles. It smelled like a wet towel. Half shut eyes, doubtful grins, unfinished board games sprawled on the dining room tables. Voluntary prisoners. Each of them spying me.
“Who is he?”
“Who are you?”
“He’s with her?”
“He’s sick. He’s sick. He’ll get us all sick.”
“Were there bears out there?”
Maybe I imagined it. Maybe that scratching against the door was a bear and not a woman with long fingernails and a bludgeoned face.
An older man with short, buzz cut white hair stepped to me. “Who are you?”
“You going to strap me down I don’t answer right?” The girl in the corner was chuffed by this.
My backpack was on but unstrapped, my hands stuffed into my coat pockets where I fingered my Swiss Army knife. The hiker on the trail a few hours earlier warned me about a group asking riddles. The old man was in front of me, Everett and Marcus behind. I was cornered, but ready.
“It looks like something but is something else.” Everett said this to me as he slung an arm over my shoulder.
I could see them now: a restaurant of unmatched misfits. The older man had a wife who was as fit as he. She was more rugged and regal, like a princess who had spent a life in hiding as a ranger. He may have been a cowboy once, or a pilot, or a Navy Seal – his eyes still carried the residue of the prairie – but whatever it was had been stripped and refinished from fluorescent lighting and days pressed to a phone. I don’t know that he’s a politician, but I’d bet a day’s rations on it.
The boy at the piano had a smile he was trying to hide. Like he just won the lotto before arriving at a funeral. He didn’t say a word. There was Marcus who looked like the type of kid who’d carry an AARP card just to get the senior discount at movie theaters. There was Everett who had a rock climber’s build: ropey arms and back, with big wide eyes that said I’m high or mad or maybe a bit of both. Four other teenagers sat on the floor playing Magic the Gathering, one of them with her headlamp shining down across the cards. They never looked up from their game.
And that girl: tied up and gagged with the belt, she wouldn’t stop eyeballing me.
“Looks like something but is something else,” I said
“Right,” Everett said
“Not a riddle?”
“Just a mystery.”
I rested my pack on the bar counter. I could smell something foul from the kitchen, like the bathroom from a mall where I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. The mix of bleach with urine.
“I’m gonna change right here,” I said. “Wet out there tonight.”
“What?” Marcus said.
“Wet out there tonight. You sealed in here pretty good? No leaks.”
“Not since I got here,” Everett said.
I stripped off my jacket and my pants and hung them over the milkshake maker. “When’d you get here?”
“Four days back.”
“How long you not had power?”
Marcus stepped to the counter. “You wanna put some clothes on before you start asking questions?”
“You could help me slip them off if you like,” I said.
“Shut up, Marcus,” Everett said. “You the first visitor since the last. The last brought some unkind visitors.”
“Bears? Or that woman outside? Or her?”
The girl on the chair watched as I slipped on a silk undershirt and long johns. It felt good to be in warm, dry clothes. The place was warm but only from the bodies. The fireplace smelled of ash.
“A, B, and C. All of the above,” Everett said. “But another girl. She’s gone now.”
“You guys been here awhile then,” I said. “I came from Yosemite. Eighth or ninth day I can’t remember which. First couple days were fine. I got to Little Yosemite. One guy stood out. Nothing crazy though. Just weird, you know? Didn’t think I’d get a site but the place was half empty. Pictures I’d seen of Half-Dome I expected a line up the trail the whole way. Same deal though. Not many folks on the road. I come back from the summit and some kid ranger is beside a couple packs that some bears got into. Haven’t seen one yet. A bear that is. But talked to a few people that had run ins.”
“These were grizzles,” Marcus said.
“Shut up, Marcus,” Everett says.
“Doubt that,” I said. “I get to Tuolumne but it’s full of sick people. Back when I was in Boy Scouts we and a bunch of other troops went whale watching. Whole roster of kids got sick. They went under thinking they could just sit down and feel better but they weren’t right. Sitting inside the cabin just made everyone feel worse. Every kid inside started to retch. Whole 100 of them. I didn’t feel well either so I step down into the cabin and I walk right into an inch puddle of it. It had spread into a pool across the cabin. All their vomit. That’s what Tuolumne looked like. Their power went out too. Power. Phone lines. Road shut down cause some rock slide way on down the road. People were camped on the side of the road making little fires. Nobody talked to each other. Up near Donahue I look back and saw smoke.”
The old man spoke: “You see anything else since then? Anything weird at Tuolumne?”
“Whole camp of sick people ain’t weird?”
“I did,” I said. “But I won’t mention it till I hear what you have to say. I won’t come in here with strangers thinking I’m gonzo. Though you got a woman tied up who’s been beat so maybe it’s the other way around.”
“She killed her mother,” the old man said. “That’s why she’s tied up.”
“She didn’t kill nobody,” Everett said.
“I saw it,” the old man said. “Jammed a fork in her eye. Was taking a butcher knife from the kitchen right to her chest. What, you think she tripped into multiple repeated stab wounds?”
“She didn’t kill nobody,” Everett said.
“She killed her,” Marcus said. “We saw it.”
Everett handed me a glass for water but I turned it away and drank straight from my platypus. He said, “You seen a woman out there right?”
“I admit nothing,” I said.
“That scratching at the door. A woman, right?”
“Call her what you want.”
He turned to the old man. “Girl didn’t kill nobody. I didn’t say she didn’t stab her. But that woman ain’t dead.”
The girl in the corner smiled at me. I finished off the water from my platypus.
“Where’s everybody sleeping?”
The old man said, “Last three nights we’ve pulled aside the tables and slept in here. There’s buckets in the back kitchen to pee. You gotta do more than that you’re going outside.”
“Right. Outside. With the dead woman who ain’t dead and a grizzly that our fine state of California killed off a century back.”
“That thing wasn’t no grizzly,” Everett said. “Boy is from the city. He don’t know.”
A three foot wide flag of the state of California hung above the bar. In a huff, Marcus snatched it off the wall and draped it over one of the dining room tables which was stained with patches of red. The flag read, “The California Republic”. It had a red star in the corner and a grizzly bear in the center walking over green grass.
“I don’t care what you say it was. I’m telling you it was this.” Marcus pointed to the bear. “It was a grizzly. I could get out a goddamn atlas if you want to see a photo.”
“Grizzly is extinct,” Everett said. “At least in California. You know what extinct means right?”
“Shut up, Everett.”
“What does extinct mean?”
“It means dead. Gone. Kaput.”
“86’ed. So you’re telling me a pack of of dead grizzly bears meandered their way from Colorado or Alaska or wherever it is that grizzly’s still exist – not California – and just happened to cross Red’s Meadow here in the Sierra where they thought they might grab a grilled cheese, a milkshake, and a few chunks out of some unassuming hikers’ ass?”
“They’re sloths, not packs.”
“And that’s not what I’m saying at all,” Marcus said.
“What are you saying?”
“A grizzly is a grizzly. I don’t claim the why, the what, the how. I’m not a journalist.”
“I’m just trying to get your head on right,” Everett said. “Everyone’s head on right. The power is out. We can’t call anyone. We’re in the mountains. What does everyone expect? You don’t come up here hoping to tap into the rest of the world. You come here to burrow down under it. We lost a connection. Some people are sick. Don’t mean we have to lose our minds. The grizzly is extinct.”
“Sure,” Marcus said. “It might be. And that’s fine. Grizzly is extinct. So was that lady when the girl stuck a knife in her chest. Once that happened you know what she became, Everett? 86’ed. And if she’s extinct too – that lady – then why don’t you tell me who that is scratching at the front door right now. Cause I’d surely like to know.”
“Well hell,” I said. “Maybe ya’ll should go ahead and tell me what happened.”
And so they did.
For the previous chapters follow the link