by Corey Fawcett
A short but powerful spiral of dizziness lurched through Diana’s head as she stepped out of her Oldsmobile 88. All she’d consumed during the 300 miles from Las Vegas to the abandoned military base now just yards in front of her were six miniature bottles of Malibu Coconut rum and fifteen Menthol cigarettes. The addition of the dry 105 degree heat gave her the strange sensation of being pulled in two different directions: her head to the sky and the rest of her body to the center of the earth. She was empty, anxious, and exhausted, but more relieved than she’d ever felt before. She knew her twin sister was here.
“It’s Gretchen. But you probably already knew that. Leave a message!” Diana had heard this recording upwards of one hundred times in the last three weeks. When she was afraid Gretchen might have been dead, the sound of her voice triggered Diana’s immediate tears. Now that she knew her sister had been ignoring her calls and living on a commune in Satan’s Asshole, Nevada, she could only feel rage. The rum did not help.
“I found you Gretchen. I’m fucking here,” she said into the phone as she paced around her car, accidentally kicking an empty bottle of rum underneath it. “I actually read between the lines of your obnoxiously cryptic letter and fucking found you. I went offroading for you. For like, hours. God, I can’t believe this. Oh, P.S., Dad probably won’t recognize you at this point, so good job with that.”
She threw the phone into her purse and turned to face the compound. Encased by a rusty chain-link fence were six rows of crumbling army barracks. She could see a handful of figures moving between them in the distance, some carrying baskets and one of them, what looked like a small child. “CAUTION: RADIATION HAZARD. DO NOT TOUCH SCRAP OBJECTS” read a sign on the fence.
“Idiots,” Diana muttered under her breath, hoping her anger would slow her heart rate down, which was beating faster by the second. Faces began to crop up in the windows of the barracks, and they were all looking her direction. She felt exposed and decided to open one more mini bottle of rum before walking towards the fence.
Diana wasn’t here to simply pluck her sister out of her new home and usher her back into reality. She had let go of the idea of Gretchen being a reliable fixture in her life years ago. When she moved away after barely graduating high school, she would go incommunicado for months on end, leaving Diana and their father Larry hanging for all the typical reasons: drug benders, obsessive romances, and sometimes a simple refusal to replace a nonfunctioning phone until Larry wired her money to do so. The irony of Gretchen’s current situation? The man who introduced her to the commune was someone she had met during a rehab stint. For years, Diana had the utmost sympathy and patience for Gretchen, which was fueled by her guilt-ridden feeling that even though they were identical twins, Gretchen’s youth was tainted by suffering in a way that Diana’s wasn’t. But now, things were different. Gretchen still caused Diana many sleepless nights – especially recently – but now she reserved all her sympathy for Larry, whose rapidly withering brain could no longer remember how to get him to the grocery store. Diana was head of the family now, and she was going to make damn well sure Gretchen knew that.
She swirled the rum around in her bottle as she watched more and more faces appear in the barrack windows. A lithe figure was pressed against the chain-link fence, looking in her direction, and then swiftly moving toward the opening. Diana shot her hand into her purse and fingered the long blade of the butcher’s knife resting at the bottom of it; the last thing she took from her apartment in Seattle before leaving for Vegas. As the figure came into focus, its scragginess grew more startling. The woman’s billowy pants that clung to her limbs revealed legs and arms biggest at the joints. The hair, though long, was thin and ratty, but Diana would recognize its warm auburn hue anywhere.
“Gretchen,” she said, anger petering out of her at the sight of the gauntness in her sister’s face. All traces of fat were scooped out of it and dark circles cradled her eyes. She was a skeleton. Gretchen threw her arms around her sister’s neck and leaned into her, crying.
“What is this place?”
“I can’t believe you’re here,” she sobbed into Diana’s neck, ignoring her question.
“Really? Because I told you I would find you. I sent you letters. Texts. Maybe forty voicemails.”
Gretchen shook her head, looking through tears into her sister’s eyes, which were at the exact same level as hers. “I don’t have access to external correspondences.”
Diana could feel a familiar stoniness coming on. “Is that so? There was nothing you could do? Don’t you just have to suck your leader’s dick to get what you want? Isn’t that how it works in cults?”
Gretchen was still shaking her head and looking down, her tears dotting the ashy dirt beneath them. “You don’t understand.” She was whispering, even though they were far out of earshot from everyone else.
“Well, Dad is dying. Early onset Alzheimer’s. Last time I visited him he was wearing a tux.”
Gretchen stepped back, open-mouthed. Diana waited for her to say something, but she remained speechless. She looked over her shoulder at a tall, bearded man who was now walking in their direction. Gretchen flung her arms around Diana again and put her mouth right on her ear.
“You need to leave now. NOW.”
Diana tried to push her off but Gretchen quickly grabbed her arms and feigned a loving embrace. The man was almost in earshot.
“You’re two breaths away from being vulture food. Fuck if I’m leaving here without you.”
“Saul, this is my sister Diana,” Gretchen said cheerfully, turning to face the man. “She’s come to cleanse herself.” Diana inhaled sharply ready to deny this but Gretchen dug her fingernails into her arm. The tip of one of them broke off and fell to the ground.
Saul was also skeletal, but moved with more buoyancy than Gretchen. He crossed his arms, accentuating his bulbous, knotty shoulders. “Oh, yes?”
Gretchen nodded vigorously. “Twins share a spiritual connection that transcends communication. We are stones nestled together under the river of time, and I could feel her becoming dislodged, so I cried out to her.” Gretchen beamed vacuously at Diana took her hand. “And she heard my call.”
Saul’s face remained unchanged. He looked at Diana.
“Yes, I knew Gretchen was in a better place,” she said, struggling for words. “And her…her calls…helped guide me here.”
Saul didn’t say anything for a long time. “Welcome to nowhere,” he said flatly, looking down his nose at Diana. “Starting today, you are nothing. Follow me and we will begin.”
Gretchen held Diana’s hand tightly as they followed behind him. Hordes of people spilled out of the barracks as the three of them walked past. They were wearing normal street clothes, but they were worn and faded by the sun. All the people were varying degrees of thin – from lean and sinewy to emaciated assemblages of skin and bones. Clothes lines hung between the windows and jugs of water sat next to the doorways. They looked frightened and somber, and the shadows in their faces reeked of sleep deprivation. There were no blissed out smiles, no plant life in anyone’s hair, no acoustic guitar players strumming about oneness and Earth power and peace and love. All was deafeningly quiet and colorless. In the distance, Diana saw thin, black wisps of smoke trailing off a large hunk of burnt metal. She glanced over at Gretchen, who was directing her unwavering gaze ahead. Diana thought they were leading her to the large tent at the end of the barracks but Saul took a sharp turn to the left and stopped above a large hole about ten feet in diameter and gestured to the ladder leading into it. Diana peered in and saw nothing but a half-empty jug of water at the bottom. “Go on,” said Gretchen with a smile. She widened her eyes minutely, and Diana recognized the urgent plea in them. She climbed down the ladder.
“This will be your home for the next two nights,” Saul said, crouching down at the top of the hole. “To become nothing, you must do nothing. You must consume nothing.” He paused for questions, which never came. “Soon you will be able to survive on air, light, and water alone, as the universe intended. But before you embark on your spiritual journey, you must rid yourself of the poison that is currently running rampant inside of you. Speak naught. Think naught. Eat naught. After this trial, you will be on your way to needing nothing and thusly purifying the earth of your artificial self. Every day we will get closer to obliterating that self.” Saul held out his hand. “The handbag may not accompany you on this journey.”
Diana gripped her purse tightly and stood up. “You know what, I think I’m good, actually. I don’t know if I’m ready for this yet. So if I could get out here, please.”
Saul threw his hands up. “We cannot force the sun to come up, or the birds to change their patterns.”
“Wow,” Diana said sardonically, the rum emboldening her. “That’s very true. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’d like to talk to my sister for a bit.”
Gretchen shook her head almost imperceptibly.
“There is no privacy here,” said Saul. “We are bells uncast. We have no shells to hold secrets.”
“Well, I’d like to discuss our dying dad with her, if you don’t mind.”
“Ah, yes. I’m sorry about the suffering your father’s disease has caused you. But you must remember, he is not returning to oblivion, for he already is oblivion.” Diana briefly considered the idea that Saul might actually have some sort of psychic ability before she realized he had probably been listening to Gretchen’s voicemails.
“Hmm, yes. Very comforting. Gretchen, can we please just walk together for a bit? Am I not owed a moment’s reunion with my twin sister?”
Saul grabbed Gretchen’s shoulders and pointed her towards the large tent to their right.
“Here, we are all siblings, and all not-siblings, and there is no hierarchy of bonds. You are free to go. It’s the car or the hole.” Saul tightened his grip on Gretchen’s shoulders. The skeletons were watching from afar, and for a second Diana considered dragging her sister away as she thwacked her way through all of them with her butcher’s knife. They would probably drop like flies. But then she caught the eye of a young boy peering out from behind a woman’s wiry leg.
“Fine,” she said, stepping back toward the hole.
She handed it over to Saul, who slung it over his shoulder knob. She hoped he couldn’t see the car key in her front pocket. Her stomach lurched as she watched him push Gretchen toward the tent and zip up the opening behind them.
Diana lowered herself back into the hole turned her eyes to the cloudless sky to consider her options. She couldn’t run back to her car to drive away and leave Gretchen in such a place. Maybe she could bring the car back around to the tent and –
“Saul, please reconsider!” Gretchen cried after Saul as he ferociously reopened the entrance to the tent and stumbled out of it holding a rag, a lighter, and a plastic carton. Gretchen clutched the waist of his shorts where he had stuck Diana’s knife. He pushed her off and sprinted through the barracks. She ran over to Diana, who was halfway out of the hole.
“A baby died…yesterday,” she panted. “Malnourishment…he doesn’t want anyone to know…we can’t leave…he blew up our only car yesterday…we’re stuck here now…no more supplies.” An explosion sounded in the distance. Diana, squinting through the blurry layer of heat on the desert floor, saw clouds of orange bursting out of her Oldsmobile 88. The blood drained from her face. “I have to get back before he sees me. Get down,” she demanded, palming her sister’s head and shoving her back into the hole. “This is for tomorrow. Don’t let him see!” She tossed a vial to her sister before scampering back into the tent.
Diana huddled into a crevice and held the vial up to her face. It was narrow with a golden brown body and black, nipple-like top. The fluid looked clear.
She heard footsteps and stuffed it down her shirt. Soon enough, Saul’s bearded face peered over the hole. “Ridding ourselves of such monstrous attachments is the first step to obliterating the self. You will understand in time.” Diana nodded, suppressing the desire to give him a mordant thumbs up.
“I do understand,” she said softly. Saul nodded and disappeared.
A wave of hunger surged over Diana and she closed her eyes, trying to hold back the tears knuckling their way out. She had always been the more stoic sister, laughing, yelling, and crying far less easily than Gretchen. It had been like that since infancy. “One of you is a blazing fire, and one of you is the steady earth,” their mother Karen would say, poking the girls in their stomachs with a playful finger. The mantra rung true throughout their childhood and early adolescence, which Diana passed in quiet, studious solitude and Gretchen spent breaking rules and chasing after boys. Most of the time they were together was when Gretchen was grounded and forced to stay in their shared bedroom which Diana voluntarily and frequently inhabited. But despite their differences, they understood every fiber of each other. The two of them snapped together like puzzle pieces and they lived off each other in an emotional symbiosis; one igniting and the other dampening. But after Gretchen found their mother’s body hanging in their basement from an orange extension cord, Diana lost all power over her sister’s volatility. For years, the color orange was enough to send Gretchen into a fit of distress. Larry, whose affair with a coworker was exposed just before Karen’s suicide, was treated like a pariah by both of the girls in the aftermath. But Diana, bound by the same sense of duty to her family members that had just landed her in a hole in the middle of the Nevada desert, succumbed to his desperate need for their love and forgave him. Gretchen, however, had never come close. “I need to see her,” he’d pleaded to Diana after he informed her about his diagnosis. “She’ll come, won’t she? She has to come.”
Diana unscrewed the top of the vial and peered in. The pure liquid looked and smelled like water. “If this is acid…what a cliché,” she muttered to herself. There was only one way to find out. She used the dropper to wipe a tiny trace of it onto her finger and dabbed it onto her tongue. She sat back and wiped the sweat out of her eyes, waiting for something to happen. She thought she could feel some tingles but wasn’t sure if it had something to do with her empty stomach, which was changing from nauseated to ravenous and back again with the rhythm of a pulse. The last time she did acid was in college, and she’d spent most of her trip trying to keep a posse of Whitman-quoting, be-poncho’d white boys from driving down to the train tracks. “Never drop acid with anyone in a poncho,” Gretchen had told her, laughing, during a rare phone call. Just when Diana was afraid her sister had completely gone off the deep end and given her a vile of water, a black squiggle caught the corner of her eye. She jumped up, suddenly recalling that the Nevada desert was full of rattlesnakes. Another black squiggle. And another. But every time she looked, it wasn’t there. She settled back down into her crevice. The sky was a deep sapphire. Whatever the morning would bring, she was ready.
“Guest, it’s time.” Diana opened one eye and saw Gretchen and Saul peering over her at the edge of the hole. Gretchen was holding the handle of a wagon, which was filled with kindling, jugs of water, a bag of rice, and a large pot. “The newest guest brews our daily nourishment. After you prepare it as it pleases our wise leader, you will watch us consume it and return to the hole. In one day, you too will be able to partake. However, if you prepare it incorrectly, it will return to the earth and you will have to keep trying until you get it right.”
Diana climbed out of the hole and followed them to a fire that was already alive and well. Along the way, she positioned the vile so it stood upright underneath the front hook of her bra and screwed off the top, which she shoved down her underwear. The other skeletons, about thirty of them, were gathered around the fire in a circle, which Gretchen joined. Saul paced around her as she fastened the pot over the flames.
“So am I making like, rice tea here?” Diana asked as she opened the bag of rice. Saul just smiled. Diana looked over at Gretchen, who held a finger up to her lips. She hoped this wasn’t strike one. She slowly raised the bag to the edge of the pot, hoping a feigned reverence would gain her points. Before she reached for a jug of water, something in the pot caught her eye. The legs of a shimmering onyx beetle stuck out of the grains. She looked up at Saul, whose expression betrayed that he was anticipating this discovery. He was standing right in front of Gretchen, completely obscuring her face. Diana reached down and plucked the beetle out of the rice, holding it up by a leg for all to see, and bent as far into the pot as she could go to gently lay it back down where it came from. As she did so, the acid spilled all over the rice.
Diana let the water boil for a few minutes before putting the fire out. She turned to face Saul and clasped her hands behind her back, stepping aside to show that it was ready for his examination. She swore she saw his brows furrow slightly as he stared at the pot. But after a few languishing moments, he held his arms out and addressed the skeletons. “Come one, come all. And as you drink, remember you are weak. Remember you have so much left to accomplish.”
Diana ladled the rice water into cups and the skeletons filtered through wordlessly. Saul was the last one in line, and he swallowed his in a few gulps before withdrawing her butcher’s knife from the waist of his sagging shorts and pointed it into her stomach. “I’ll escort you back to your hole,” he said. Diana held her breath as grabbed her wrist and turned her around to guide her back to where she came from.
“I know she told you,” he seethed into her ear they walked, weaseling the tip of the knife further and further into the tough muscle of her lower back. Diana shook her head vigorously, which he ignored. “You can’t lie to me.” They were standing at the edge of the hole now. He twisted the knife ever so slightly, and Diana cried out. He breathed heavily into her ear. “This is for the best,” he said, his voice breaking a bit. “This is – ” he dropped the knife and spun to his left.
“FIRE!” he screamed, pointing with a quaking finger at Gretchen, who was running toward them. “FIRE! FIRE!”
He dropped to the ground and rolled back and forth, back and forth, getting further and further away from them. Gretchen picked up the knife and we escaped into the desert. I let her blaze the trail for us.
© 2014 Corey Fawcett