Branches scraped at the sides of the rusted hulk of steel and clawed through the open windows. Patches of sunbaked California Orange and Polar White paint gave way, but the determined 1980 Suburban forced its way down another overgrown dirt road, less road and more scrub with each passing second. Dusk brought out the shadows, growing at each turn under a clear, moonless autumn sky.

“Holy fuck!” James pumped the squishy brakes, “No, no, no!” He yelled. 

A faded coffee tumbler shot under the dashboard, sloshing under his flailing feet. The Suburban skidded to a stop, lost in a cloud of dust. James picked up the tumbler and took a long swig, savoring the rye that overpowered the smoky-sweet roast. Swinging from the rearview mirror,  a pink-framed photo of an olive-skinned woman with a bright-eyed girl giggling in her lap, caught James’ attention.

“You hated this gas-guzzling pig.” A smile formed. He gently caught the photo in a heavily calloused palm. “But look at all the wonderful places it's taken us.”

The dust cleared. 

The idling Suburban’s front tires clung to a chunk of granite guarding a thousand-foot drop.  A tree spattered gorge rolled off for miles until rising once again into a towering mountain range. The last of the sun’s light being swallowed by their guarded peaks.

“Found it again, sweetness. Harder each time, but goddamn, what a view.”

 

He let go of the picture, grabbed the ragged topo-map on the passenger side of the bench, and traced the smudged penciled line with his finger to the ‘X’ with beautiful cursive notes written to its side.

 

  • UFO CLIFF!!! (Play along James, Belle loves all things alien)

  • 5 hrs from civilization (bring extra coffee!)

  • ‘Toccata & Fugue in D Minor’ call to them (diminished seventh chord, they can’t resist it! :)  I know, I know, but bring Bach’s Greatest Hits. Track-4, I think?)

  • No moon, same day, once a decade, 11:59 pm (our big chance!)

  • Regardless, magical place to camp & hide for a week

 

Brushing each swooping letter with his fingertips, teardrops tapped the lead. Grey dots grew into rings. He wiped his eyes. James froze on the notes he’d added over the past twenty years. Each in block text, a decade apart to the day. Each a tombstone without a body.

 

  • 2000 (BELLE)

  • 2010 (MONICA)

 

Grabbing a stub of a pencil jammed in the defrost-vent on the dash, he added a third note.

 

  • 2020 (JAMES)

 

He tossed the stub on the dashboard and dropped the map on the bench and grabbed the bent shifter on the steering column. One foot hard on the brake, James revved the engine, looking ahead into the great abyss. Sliding it into ‘drive’ his breath quickened, a hand clamped hard on the shifter. 

They vanished. He thought. Decades of investigations without a shred of proof ever found.  Law enforcement, media, and finally, friends and family turned. First, we killed our daughter, then a decade later I kill my wife, or I killed them both, or maybe, discovering my wife killed my daughter… revenge!

A slow exhale and the car clicked into ‘reverse,’ and crawled away from the ledge. James cranked the wheel hard left and turned onto the barely perceptible track that paralleled the cliff.

“Not long now.” 

He bounced along, slowed at the approach of a house-sized boulder and eased right. Dense scrub and trees disappeared. The Suburban dropped into a perfect circular depression in the granite and rolled to a stop. Faint stars reflected off the dull hood.

                                    …

    They’re close, my love. 

James lurched forward out of a deep sleep, chest bouncing off the steering wheel, winded, his head cranked left and right trying to get his bearings.    

 

“Where the hell–”

    They’re close, my love.

“Monica?” He whispered, knowing the sound was in his head. Ten years ago to the day it had been the voice of Belle.

Freeing his phone from his pocket James checked the time, 11:38. Wiggling the glovebox, it released with a squeak. A dim light flickered and Johann Sebastian Bach stared back from the dusty cover of the lone CD.

All because of a fucking grey-haired German, he thought, and a women’s love of classical music. A simple internet search. Down the rabbit hole until all that remained was map coordinates, aliens, and Bach. Just another of many quirky family adventures. But it wasn’t. 

He turned the key in the ignition a click. The CD player glowed into existence and James slid the CD in, forwarded to Track 3, cranked the volume, and pressed PLAY. ‘Cantata No. 140’ gave him four minutes and change to prepare. Four painful minutes. Worst of Bach’s organ-grind. Felt like the church of his childhood.

Shouldering the door open, James slid out under a moonless, star-filled sky. Holding the side of his phone for a moment, it protested then fell dark; he tossed it through the window and moved to the bumper. 

Starlight danced off the polished granite beneath his feet. Don’t look, don’t you fucking–He looked down. Inches from his left foot, the worn granite circle rose into a rough crust then disappeared into oblivion. Even with the stars, the void quickly turned black, the pull of its depths begging him to jump. 

Quickly, he scrambled onto the hood, placed his hands on the roof, and stopped. A slight outline blasted into the paint of the rooftop lay perfectly centered. Small feet and the silhouette of skinny chicken legs followed. 

“Oh Belle,” he sniffled and looked to the larger, curvy outline next to it.  

His wife was certain a decade later, if they followed every detail, every turn and bump, played that shit-ass ‘Cantata No. 140’ as they climbed into place to enjoy the view and play up the ‘UFO Cliff’ for Belle’s enjoyment… sure that Belle would return to them. Hours later, he woke up alone.

Exhausted, James hopped up, laid on the side of the roof next to the two shapes. Track 3 ended and the diminished seventh chord of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor roared across the gorge, echoed off the distant mountains, and rose into the night sky.

High above the jagged peaks, stars vanished behind a black mass and reappeared in its wake as James drifted into a deep sleep.

  IAIN RICHMOND © 2019

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