When Owen Ashburn was four years old he felt a specter lean in close and whisper so only he could hear: “I take care of you.” It remained his earliest memory. He never saw the ghost, had never seen a ghost since, didn’t even particularly enjoy the word “ghost”, since the word ghost – apparition, specter, death, nebulous – seemed to imply that the thing wasn’t real. And though he may have never seen one – he called them “Bootleggers” – he had certainly heard one often enough to know they were real. That first time he was standing outside Whisky Pete’s in the Nevada desert waiting for his parents to conclude whatever it was parents did inside casinos. His brother ran off to ride the roller-coaster that divided the California/Nevada border. Owen remained outside the casino, alone with the dark, unpopulated desert.
The voices – there was more than one – remained a constant friend. They were never hostile, never threatening, never anything more than they were that first time in the desert: comforting.
He’d held their hand and spoken to them and though he could never see them with his eyes he always knew when they were there. His parents wrote off this behavior to youth and weirdness, but as he aged and the voices didn’t sway but instead appeared to strengthen their grip, Owen’s parents took young Owen to a psychologist who said the voices were the result of trauma he’d undergone as a child – the Big Revolt of ‘92 – and that if they wanted these voices to depart, they best keep him in therapy for the immediate future.
The doctor prescribed a dose of some drug he couldn’t pronounce and he was to take the drug every day until an undetermined date. He gave the drug six months to do its work after which he began to flush the pills down the toilet. He didn’t enjoy the sensations – he described it as feeling bored with everything – but worse, the drug had done exactly what the therapist and his parents had hoped: the Bootleggers had left him. They had moved on.
Six weeks after that first flush the voices returned.
“We thought you had left us.”
“Never,” he said.
“We’ve been planning something.”
Owen had never imagined that the Bootleggers were trapped, that they were in a sort of prison, yet that was exactly how they framed it.
“We’ll need a herald to welcome us, Owen.”
“Someone to help pry open the gates.”
“I’m only a kid,” Owen said.
“For now,” they said. “Soon you will grow strong. Life moves fast in the worded world. One day you’ll step out your window and be a grown man. Between that time and now will feel like two breaths.”
He was in his room on his bed. He saw a vision of him opening his bedroom window and stepping out as an old man into an unrecognizable world. He was a king in this world, a king without subjects. And though the street was there and all the street signs and most the houses, the world was different, as though someone had given the plants and animals and invisible wild things a chance to stretch their legs.
He wrote his brother Everett about his plan – his plan, which detailed little more than doing exactly what Everett himself had done years earlier when he was a junior in high school:
Head for the mountains.
Step into the wild.
Everett never wrote back. He had been leading exhibitions up Torres Del Paine in Patagonia the previous two years. Owen and his parents rarely heard from him except for occasional letters and notices when his named appeared in magazines. When a year had passed without a response, Owen, 16 years old and a junior in high school, set out.
He never told his parents.
He hitched a ride north and found a ranch in Montana where he worked two seasons cooking food and cleaning dishes in exchange for room and board. He hitchhiked into Alaska and saw limitless mountains and glaciers as old as civilization. The voices joined him on occasion. But as he traveled and explored and dug through new challenges, the voices joined him less. And when enough time had passed between calls, he suspected that they really had departed. Or that his parents and the doctors had been right: he had imagined them all along.
This was not the case.
He was doing trail maintenance in the Appalachians, creating gutters along the three thousand mile long Appalachian Trail. The rain came down in sheets, leaving rivers of water and mud flowing against him on the trail. He spiked his shovel into the wet earth. He’d been away from home for five years. He’d traveled from one end of the country to the other. The labor had left his palms white with calluses. His arms had become ropes. He’d lived some sort of life; though he didn’t yet know it. He hadn’t spoken to the Bootleggers in two years. Hadn’t seen his brother in over a decade. Hadn’t seen his parents since the night before he had left. He was 21 years old. Maybe it was time to go home.
“Owen, we are ready.”
He stopped shoveling. The rain water rose up above his knees.
He said the words out loud. The workers beside him looked over. Owen often said things out loud.
“We’ve been trapped a long time.”
“How can I help you?”
“You can release us.”
“Your people call it The New World. Those who peopled it first are far older. A line of mountains runs north to south in the far west. They are young mountains, younger than the old mountains where you now stand. We founded them a million years ago, long before the first men stood upright. We have remained there waiting…until now.”
“Why me? I don’t understand. Why me? There are so many others. A whole world of others. Why me? You aren’t of the worded world.”
“The last was a man in your line and he came to find us long ago, a century before you were born. He died on the path.”
“Died in his pursuit.”
“Died in his pursuit. Are these mountains in California?”
“We don’t know all the words of your frontiers.”
“The Sierra? That name. Do you know that name.”
“We do not know that name.”
A hundred words and names ran through Owen’s head. He could list them all and none would stick. He had done a family tree once for school. There were so many lines. One went back to England and Scotland and France. That was the line he included. Another line went back over the seas to Africa but his mom didn’t like that lineage and wouldn’t let him include it. The third line didn’t go west or east or very far at all. That line stayed here in America. He and his brother did it in secret because they both shared that line: their grandfather on their mother’s side. That line went far back.
He thought through the names he had learned and settled upon one he remembered.
“Ahwahneechee. Do you know that name?”
“That name. Yes.”
“Yosemite. The Sierra. California.” He said this aloud and his coworkers laughed at him. “Not Yosemite. Appalachians.”
“Come to us closer,” the voices said. “The strain is too great.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Come closer and you shall.”
That fall he hitched a train and followed the tracks west through plains and high mountain vistas dodging security dogs and railroad laborers. He met vagabonds, train hoppers, outcasts, unsettled immigrants from within the dark nowhere pockets of America.
He followed them west and south and north and before he ever found his way back to California, he found his footprint had settled on every open swath of mud in the states.
The voices ceased.
His hair grew long and his beard filled into a coarse bushel. His traveling band of immigrants introduced him first to booze and bud and later other artifacts more hostile than the rest.
The voices ceased.
For a long time he did not miss them. He was joined by new voices – voices with faces and skin, voices who not only talked back but TOUCHED back. They dipped and they chewed and they snorted and smoked and even those who didn’t do any of that, still seemed infected by some plague: a plague that assured, if nothing else, that these people would never again live within our conventions. Their homes were riverside beneath bridges on the outer boroughs. They were coyotes who might scavenge our remains but who could never live within our yards. They would never fit in unless the worded world itself ended. Only then could they rejoin.
A year passed. Then two. Then many more. Owen came westward with a friend he met named Falcon. Falcon drove Owen to his parents house beyond the San Fernando Valley. Owen stood in the driveway and he could see his mom and dad inside eating breakfast over the big oak dining table they’d had since he was a kid. They were so much older. Only now did he see that they didn’t match. And yet they persisted.
“You’re so skinny.” That’s what they’d say. They’d tell him his grandma had died and he missed the funeral, that she had asked about him but he was gone. They’d have letters from his brother, exploits of Everest and K2, free ascents up El Capitan and sheer rock walls in southern Utah. He read about Everett in Outside magazine and even a piece inNational Geographic and a part of him wondered whether one day they might cross paths in the wild. Though the professional explorer and the payless vagabond might traverse the same country, they are not kin.
He considered all this as he stood before his childhood home and watched his parents. If he knew it was the last time he’d ever see them he might have gone in. And when they died they would have at least known their son was alive and well. That he still loved them. Instead he turned around and got into the car and drove off with Falcon, never to see them again.
Owen and Falcon took the 10 east through Arizona and settled in some single gas station town near the Coronado Forest beneath Mount Wrightson, the place a tumbleweed might go to retire. Falcon scored some H and they indulged with two girls they had met near Tucson who had hitched south from Idaho where they had dropped out of college.
One girl – Owen couldn’t remember her name – sat beside him in the backseat, kissing his neck and trying to unzip his jeans. Five years had passed since that moment in Appalachians when the voices had given him his duty. He was closer to 30 now than any marketable age before that. He’d kissed girls and kissed boys and had even compelled himself to sleep with a handful of them. Most of the time he faked it. Love, affection, interest, arousal – these were garments he might indulge to appease those around him.
He didn’t care about that now. His last heroin induced thought before Falcon drove head on into a family station wagon killing the mother, the daughter, the dad, but leaving the two retriever/shepherd muts alive – and amputated – was whether his entire life had been worth living.
He woke up in a solitary cell built a century back when this had been a mining hub. Now it was two steps from being a ghost town. He wasn’t cuffed, but strapped to a single cot. His mouth itched and his body ached from the inside out. The sheriff was sitting at his desk playing minesweeper on his decade old PC.
The sheriff had white hair and a white beard and was heavy but lithe like someone who had played college sports.
“You woke up and looked like you were sleepwalking. When you weren’t crying and sweaty or talking to the walls.”
“Talking to the walls.”
The sheriff opened the cell and untied Owen’s straps.
“You were thrashing about. Daughter’s a nurse. Thought this would help.”
“The boy we sent to Tucson. He’ll be tried for manslaughter, probably convicted, probably put away so long you’ll forget him when he’s free. You…”
Owen he kept in that cell for a month. The paperwork listed him for public drunkenness and resisting arrest. The sheriff’s daughter looked him over and convinced her father that if he released Owen to Pima County he’d die on the street, either from withdrawal or from some overeager attempt to score again. The sheriff was the grandson of a man who’d been the sheriff before him. His grandfather always liked to declare: “Women have a magic in their eyes men can’t fathom. Witch hunts don’t make sense. Not because witches aren’t real, but because all women are witches. Whether they knew it yet or not.”
The sheriff remembered this and so when his daughter said what she said about Owen, he respected her, and fudged the law where he could to keep the boy in shackles till he could walk proper.
He let him make a phone call after a week when Owen was able to get out of bed without soiling or shivering himself into sweats. Owen wouldn’t call home. He didn’t have the number of anyone he’d met on the road, didn’t imagine they had phones to carry. All he had on him to vouch for who he had once been was an expired driver’s license and a torn-out photo from a magazine of his brother Everett. The photo included a name: Los Olvidados Expeditions.
He called that number, received an answering machine, and left his name and the sheriff’s info. He didn’t expect a call back.
Before he hung up he heard someone whisper four words:
“We are the forgotten.”
He took some deep breath as though he’d been underwater too long.
“Los Olvidados,” he said out loud, before he hung up. “The Bootleggers.”
He spent three weeks on the cot in the cell retching into his bedpan and leaving his organs in the toilet. He shivered in his sleep, saw monsters climbing the bars, heard the voices of every person he’d ever run across the last five years; but never, not once, did he hear again from the ghosts: the Bootleggers.
At night he dreamed of tall mountains that looked like wizard caps. He felt earthquakes so large vents opened through cracks in the desert, as though the core of the earth let out a great sigh as it woke up. He saw horned women ramble across the desert atop freed living mountains, as though they were giant elephants. He saw beasts around campfires staging tales of places beyond the earth never seen by man.
When he was alone at night he knelt before his cot and prayed to the Bootleggers to return and give him wisdom. They told him nothing. He was left with a vision: three peaks like a stegosaurus’ spine set against an alpine lake with a hundred tiny islands. Whether the vision came from some forgotten Boy Scout adventure or a silent message from the Bootleggers, Owen did not know. The vision remained there, like an itch, when he woke up and before he fell asleep. It remained there as he day dreamed what he might do when he left the cell. When days passed and the vision refused to go, he accepted it and laughed. For the first time in his life he had a destination, some horizon to seek. When the sheriff’s daughter dropped him at the bus station in Tucson six weeks after he’d first arrived she left him a hundred dollars and asked him where he would go.
“California,” he said. “The last outpost in the west, before the sea and beneath the sky, where waterfalls top the mantle of the earth and the first men never die.”
She smiled at him and kissed his cheek. Her father thought he was a junkie, some drifting loser with imaginary fantasies who’d soon relapse and find himself at the steps of the next poor sap who’d take him in. She didn’t question that outlook. It’s what a rational man might expect. But she knew what her father did not: that if she was a witch, she was quite certain that Owen himself was a wizard.
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