29.11.08

The Mountain (Complete)

The fate of mankind is to perish from insanity, because we live in a world we do not fully understand. We have come farther than we ever thought was possible in the fields of physics, calculus, chemistry; in everything we study, we know more than we had ever imagined we would. And yet, the cumulative knowledge of mankind is but a small, insignificant fraction of all there is in the universe, and in the dimensions further. We can see our tiny portion of the universe, and have but a glimpse of the infinite reaches beyond, and nothing of the spheres of existence even further beyond that. And yet, we still celebrate our achievements, the isolation of the atom, space flight, as though they meant something. Mankind has advanced so far, and yet we know almost nothing. In our own world, which we claim to have mapped, charted, plotted, pinpointed, and explored to the most remote reaches, there still exist pockets of phenomenon we cannot or will not examine, because to know the deepest secrets of this world is to go mad, and the human mind is nothing if not protective of itself. There are some who have probed these dark and hidden corners, but they are either dead or insane, their minds cutting them off from the knowledge they have gathered. But this is the fate of all mankind, for our most deadly trait is our curiosity, our inability to leave things well enough alone.

The following account was found by the Tropic Park Police Department after the apparent suicide of Thomas Reed and the subsequent investigation of the apartment he inhabited, which had been owned by Reed's father, Jackson Reed, also deceased. This account contains several pages of notes, personal writings, and strange pictographs. The more than two hundred pages of handwritten material are recounted here, in the order that Reed left the information, not because they contain any hint of truth (the missive is far too extraordinary for that), but because they are the last remaining testament to the mental state of Thomas Reed, which appears to have deteriorated severely after the death of his father. Indeed, several interviews conducted with residents of Tropic Park after his death reveal that Reed had become increasingly engrossed in his father's study of the history of Tropic Park and the surrounding area, obsessed, some described it, and took to extreme measures to gather information. An autopsy was done post-mortem by Dr. Geraldine White, who discovered that Thomas Reed was suffering from brain cancer. The tumor was in such a place that it very well could have affected his mental capacity and his ability to reason and think logically, hence the irrational behavior and the bizzare testimonial of the transcript. Dr. White, after some research into the subject, found that such a placed brain tumor had given rise to suicidal tendencies in the past, on no less than thirteen occasions. The exact reason, then, as to why Reed would throw himself off the balcony of his father's tenth story balcony is attributed to madness, a deep and all-consuming madness that comes from an illness inside.

***

The mountain is a beautiful thing. It sits, tall and powerful, proud, silent. In the morning, the rising sun hits the mountain squarely, lighting it brilliantly so that you awaken to a splash of green dominating the westward horizon. You could watch it from every angle for a thousand years and still see something new. A ring of trees grows around the middle, several hundred feet wide, a sea of dark green on the slopes. There are precious few paths through this forest, made by the indigenous people who tend the fields below and the occasional thrill seeker from out of town, who doesn't know to keep well enough alone from the mountain. Any who want to scale to the peak must go through here, and it is a harsh place, a hothouse during the day that brings out mosquitoes and flies and ants by the thousands to feast on whatever hapless traveler tries to pass through. At night, the temperature plummets, and whomever is caught inside the ring has to contend with the total darkness of an absent sky.
Above that, where the soil is too rocky for the trees, grow acres and acres of small bushes, a lighter shade of chartreuse, that carries almost all the way to the peak. Some of the sweetest blueberries grow there, full and luscious and so juicy that eating just one handful stains your fingers and your mouth for hours. And the blueberries are there all season, and when summer flows into winter, the blueberries stink and fester and fall off the bushes to the ground, where they slowly melt into the dirt. Because scant few people climb the mountain to pick the berries, and no animals live that high, no eagles, no rats, nothing. And so, around the end of October, when the wind is just right, you can catch the smell of rancid blueberries rolling down the mountain like a wave.
On the top of the mountain, the part above the bushes, nothing grows, and you can see the dark gray earth that lies beneath the rest of the growth further down, because millennia of wind have long since eroded the dirt flesh and exposed the stony skeleton, like a well-cleaned skull, to the world below. The peak does not come to a point, as many mountains do, but rather has what appears from sea level to be an abrupt plateau. It is not flat, however, but dips down in on itself into a bowl-shape, remnants of a past when the mountain was still volcanic. There have been no recent eruptions, though, none since long before the area around the mountain was settled by the European explorers, and the bowl is mostly rock and snow, like the rest of the peak. A spring wells up out of the bowl, though, and sends a river of sparkling clean water down the mountainside, corkscrewing a few times through the stony head and the small bushes before forming a straight path down through the forest, then swinging around the mountain to go through the town and out to sea. Though this would provide a continuous source of fresh water to the farmers down below, the river has never been irrigated, and the people continue to rely on rainfall to water their crops. Most of the people in the city, those who pay attention to the indigenous, scoff at this perceived waste of an abundant natural resource, but the indigenous people have lived on the mountain for a very long time, and know many things about the land and the water and the sky, and so they trust themselves, and tend to ignore the city folk.
Below the forest ring, the mountain begins to spread out. Like a giant hand with fingers extending, the mountain sends out ridges on all sides. From here to the foot of the mountain, the land is a patchwork of green and brown, each square a different plot of land growing different crops and kept by a different person. The indigenous live in small stone houses with thatched roofs, which now have electricity and running water. Every day, they come into the city to sell their wares in the central market and on street corners to the city dwellers who are more than happy to accept the fresh strawberries and blackberries at below-average prices. But other than this necessary contact of producers and consumers, the indigenous do not maintain communication with the city people, preferring to keep to themselves on their mountainous lands. Though, to be fair, the city people do not talk to them either.
The mountain is a beautiful thing, with its dark brown chasms the height of a ten-story building carved out of the side as though with a giant's chisel, the snow on the peak that grows and retracts with the changing seasons as though the mountain were breathing, the clouds that coalesce like blood clots around it, casting dark shadows over the sides, the way the sun sets behind it, throwing up a great silhouette of fire around it. The mountain is a beautiful thing, but it also holds it secrets, for there is a reason why the berries are never picked, why no animals live near the top, why few ever tread the paths through the forest, why the indigenous do not drink the clear water that flows down from the peak, and why the many caves that dot the mountain, though filled with ancient wonders that would certainly fulfill any anthropologist's wildest dreams, are never fully examined. The mountain is a beautiful, terrible thing.

I. Coming to Tropic Park
or The First Day of the Rest of My Life

When I finish writing this, I will die. I had hoped that it wouldn't come to this, but I knew all along that it would. I have been cursed with an excellent memory, a device that made me the envy of my classmates when I could recall any lesson ever given by my university professor word for word, alleviating the need to take notes. But I do not feel worthy of envy. Pity, perhaps. Mercy, even. But envy? I am cursed, for I know things now that I would rather leave forgotten, and yet every time I close my eyelids against the light, I can see again the faces crowding around me, their arms reaching out... I tried drugs for a while, but marijuana quickly lost its edge and I couldn't afford the sweeter forgetfulness poison of heroin, so that avenue fell and diminished to nothing, leaving me in the same dead end I had been before. And I wish it were over! But soon, very soon now, it will be. I can feel the madness coming upon me, the insanity I see inside my mind whenever I hear a dog bark in the distance, or the crash of waves on the beach not far from where I am now. The madness is closing in, spiraling inward and downward in an ever-narrowing series of loops and dives, like the flies that circle me now, buzzing with their inhuman pitch, waiting for me to die so they can feast on my corpse and lay their eggs in my broken flesh. But that is the end of my story, and, like all stories, I must start at the beginning, or at least where the beginning was for me. I suppose it truly began eight years ago with my father, though one could argue the true start lies much further back, three thousand years further back, but this is not my father's story, or the story of the natives who ruled this land for so long. It is my story, and therefore, it begins with me.
My mother sent me to look after my father's affairs following his death because I had no job at the time, being in the limbo that comes after leaving university and thus free to carry out my father's last wishes. I was at the time enrolled in a few mathematics courses at the community college up that way, something to pass the time really, while I looked for something else, but my mother told me to put those on hold and go down the coast. I had rarely seen her appear so worried. Usually, when she worried about something, anything, she would fly into a rage against the thing or person who had caused her to become so anxious. And usually, that was me, but she never hurt me, or even threatened to hurt me, and when I was old enough and she became worried-angry again, this particular instance was after my girlfriend missed her period, I told her to stop or I would leave and never speak to her again. Since that one occasion, she had done a fairly good job at hiding her emotions, but when she received the call that my father was dead, she didn't even try. I thought at the time that she was worried about my father, which struck me as incredibly out of character, as the two had not spoken in years. But by the time I did find out why exactly she was nervous, I didn't realize or understand what it meant, and it was too late by then to do anything about it anyway.
I was born in Tropic Park, but my parents divorced when I was little, my mother moving away with me to her birthplace of Ormond Beach. So it was something like a homecoming, returning to that city on the beach. From far off, I could see the great mountain growing higher and higher as I neared the town. A rhyme came back to me, from my childhood, and I hummed it softly to myself.
“I'll go no more a-climbing
The Lonesome Mountainside.
Though now I be a-rhyming,
I very nearly died.”
It reminded me of another, one I had seen scrawled in my textbooks in junior high. It was still with me, after all these years, another gift from my invasive memory.
“Life's a bitch and then you die,
So fuck the world, and let's get high.”
That brought up another memory, reciting that children's rhyme to Sarah and watching her laugh sweetly at the pessimism in it, but that was a thought for another day, and I filed it away in the part of my mind that would drudge it up again furthest in the future.
The Dixie Freeway goes straight through Tropic Park, as it does with many other cities along the east coast of Florida, and I pulled off onto the road leading to the North Causeway, which brought me direct to my father's condominium complex. It was a frilly affair, a ten-story tall building with a large sign declaring the building to be “Oceanside Paradise”, a claim I thought slightly untrue, as it bordered the river and not the ocean. My father's apartment was on the tenth floor, and I had to walk to the top, as the elevator was out of order. It took me a moment to find the specific door to my father's place, and I had to walk around the floor, which was laid out like a square with rooms on either side.
I eventually found someone who was just leaving their own apartment, who I hoped would direct me to my father's, and I introduced myself. The woman, Missus Holly McBride, was an older person, seventy-five or so, though I would never ask, with a full head of gray hair and thin-rimmed glasses. She had known my father well enough for a neighbor, and she gave her condolences for his passing over a cup of tea. She asked if I was going to continue the studies my father had been working on at the time of his death.
“I never really knew my father, Missus McBride.”
“Please, call me Holly. I'm too old to care about formalities and I haven't been a Missus since my husband died back in ninety-seven. Heart attack, you know. Sugar?” She passed me a bowl.
“My parents divorced when I was young, and my mother took me up to Ormond Beach, near Daytona, you know. And we never really spoke, me and my dad. My mom didn't like him.”
“Well, that's a shame. He was a very nice man. A little quiet, and closed-in, but a very nice man all the same.”
“Did you know him well?”
“Oh, as well as any neighbor can know another. You know, lent him candles during the hurricanes, he helped me carry my groceries up whenever we met when I was coming back from the market. I let him use the phone a few times. That was strange, though.”
“What do you mean, Holly?”
“He never kept a phone in his apartment, said it was too expensive, that he didn't use it enough to warrant the extra cost. But when he did want to use it, he always knocked on my door. I didn't mind. He was a nice man, always came and had a cup of tea with me when he was done on the phone, you know. Asked how my grandkids were, that sort of thing.”
“Do you know who he called?”
“Oh, well, Thomas. It wasn't none of my business who he was calling, and I'm not the sort to listen in on someone while they're on the phone.”
“So, you have no idea who he talked to?” Any information on my father's life was going to be useful in filling out the gaps of my knowledge about him, and I was hungry for anything I could build off of.
“Well, my dear. Not really. Except there was one time.” She looked down at her tea sheepishly. “Well, you know I'm not the sort to listen to a person's private conversation. What they do on the phone is between themselves and whoever's on the the other end of the line. If I need to know about it, I figure they'll tell me, right?” She continued without waiting for an answer. “But one time, not so long ago, I don't remember the exact date, you know I'm not as young as I used to be, and sometimes I feel as I'd forget where my head was if it was screwed on, your father damn near knocked my door off the hinges, demanding to use the phone. He seemed real happy and excited about something or other. I'd never seen him so worked up before, so of course I let him in. He ran to the phone, which is over there, over the counter, and I politely excused myself to the living room. It's not polite to listen to someone while they're on the phone, you know. I thought it might be a lady friend. I've never seen him up here with a woman before, not that I've been watching or anything, and he never said anything to me about a special someone in his life, not that I ever asked him about anything like that. It's not polite to ask someone about their romantic situation, you know. But when he started talking, I knew that it was something else. For one thing, he didn't say anything about a restaurant, or a movie, or anything about going out with a woman. Not that I was listening, you know, but he was speaking in a very loud voice, and I couldn't help but hear a few things. I was listening through a wall, well, not listening, exactly, but his voice was coming through the wall, you know, so I couldn't hear everything. But I did catch some things. He said something about some kind of symbols. He was into studying history and stuff, so I thought maybe he had found some kind of writing on a gravestone or something. Then he went real quiet for a while, and then he got really loud. Really loud. Angry loud, yelling so loud I thought that Mister and Missus Bennett in the next apartment over would be waking up. You know they've got the arthritis bad, the both of them, and they don't get to sleep real easy, so I didn't want him waking them up. I was in watching my stories on the TV you know, so I wasn't asleep yet, but it was real late at night. So I went into the kitchen to make a pot of tea. I thought that maybe if he saw me there, he'd quiet down a bit, you know, realize that there were other people in the world who might want a little bit of peace and quiet at nine o'clock at night. But no, he went right on shouting and carrying on, like he didn't even notice me come into the room. That's how involved he was in the conversation.”
“When you went into the kitchen, did you hear what he was saying?”
“Well, I wasn't listening in on him, that's not polite. I was just trying to save Mister and Missus Bennett from having to spend another hour trying to get back to sleep with their joints all a-fire, you know. But I did hear him say something, you know. He said,” she scrunched her face up and lifted a finger, in an imitation of my father's indignation at some unknown person, “he said, 'I'm telling you, we need to make another trip! I've almost got it and, no, no, you listen to me! I'm telling you, I've almost got it! I'm this close to making us more famous than those dumb shits that cracked the Rosetta Stone! You can't-' but then he stopped and looked at the phone all queer-like, you know, and slammed it back down. I put the teapot on to boil, and pretended like I hadn't heard him, although I was pretty sure that everyone on this side of the lagoon heard him. But anyway, he sat down and put his head in his hands, and I could tell he wasn't angry anymore. He looked more depressed. You know the way a gambler gets when he runs out of money? Jackson looked kind of like that. Now, I'm not one to gamble myself, but Franklin did take me over to Vegas back in ninety-three for our fifty year anniversary, that's the Golden Anniversary, you know. I didn't gamble, but Franklin spent some time at the poker tables, you know, and he liked to have me with him. His good luck charm, he called me, although he didn't win very much. But he didn't lose any money, either, so I guess that's about as much luck as you can hope for in Vegas.”
“Did my father tell you what the phone call was about?”
“Well now, dear. You know I'm not one to pry like that. It's not polite to ask people what they're on the phone about. If I need to know, they'll tell me. But I offered him some tea, I figured he needed something to calm him down, you know, which he took. I do pride myself on making good tea. I mix it myself, you know.”
“It is very good,” I said, and took another sip to reassure her. “What happened next?”
“Well, we were waiting for the tea to boil, and he wasn't saying anything, and I was just going on about my bridge club meeting I'd had that afternoon. I don't like to talk very much, but he wasn't saying anything and I don't like awkward silences neither. But I poured him some tea, and he drank it down very quickly, even though it was still boiling hot. I warned him not to drink it so fast, but he wasn't one to listen to what people were telling him.” I made a mental note to ask her about that, but decided against doing it right then, in case it deterred her from the current story any further. “So I poured him another cup, and he drank that one just as fast too. And he looked down at his cup and he said to me, he said, 'Holly, I don't know what I'm going to do.' And that was all he said. I poured him a third cup of tea, which he drank a little bit slower that time, and I just went on and on about my new doctor. You know I had to get a new doctor after Dr. Kenneth up and moved back North, where he came from. I don't know why, but it seems as a good doctor is hard to find, and Dr. Kenneth was one of the best I've ever had. Always explained things in a way so you could understand them, you know? How long are you going to be staying here, anyways? Do you have a doctor here yet? You never know when you're going to need some pills or something.”
“I'm just going to be here long enough to look after my father's affairs, try and set things in order, you know. I mean, I'm just here because my mom wanted me to take care of my father's stuff. He didn't have any other family.”
“Well, dear, that is right nice of you. I hope my kids are as thoughtful when it comes to be my time to go. They didn't stick around in Florida, though. One of them's living down in Texas now, somewhere around Austin, and the other took off clear to the other side of the country, down in California, thinks he's a bigshot lawyer. They don't call me enough anymore either. I swear they wouldn't wish me happy birthday if I didn't call them every October third, you know. But they come and visit every once in a while, when they want to go to Disneyworld. My older one, he's married, got two kids, Peter Anderson McBride and Pamela Alexis McBride. My other boy still hasn't settled down yet, got himself a wife and a couple a kids, you know. But I'm a grandma by my first one, so that's all I really need, I guess.” She sighed deeply. “Say, you got yourself a lady-friend back home?” I shook my head. I had one for a little while, but that was over, had been for some time. And it hadn't ended well either. I hoped my sadness wouldn't show, and when McBride continued to babble, I could only assume she hadn't. Perhaps it was the poor eyesight. “That's too bad. I bet it'd make your mom real happy if she had a couple a little kids to buy stuff for. When you get old, there's really only a couple of things you stick around for, and buying stuff for your grandkids is one of them, you know. Can I get you another cup of tea?”
“That'd be great, Holly. Thanks. Your tea sure is the best I've ever had.” She poured me another glass and began to drone on about her dancing lessons, and the new restaurant they were opening up next to the movie theater, and so on and so forth.
When I finally excused myself and went to my father's apartment, which I suppose is my apartment now, I found the place spectacularly clean. There was a small layer of dust over everything, but there were no plates out, no books strewn across the floor, even his study showed no signs of having ever been used. I thought that with a police investigation ongoing, there might be at least some evidence of the place having been searched, but nothing. Not even a spare newspaper in the bathroom.
The layout of the condo was fairly simple, and was similar to that of Holly's apartment. The front door opened up onto a small room which had doors leading straight, into the living room, left, in the kitchen, and right, into a closet. The living room and the kitchen connected by half-walls to the entrance hall, so you could see to the balcony window and then the river from the front door. The kitchen connected to the bathroom, which in turn connected to the bedroom, which had a door leading back into the living room. On the other side of the living room was my father's study, which was smaller than the other rooms and had once been, I suspected, a guest room, for it had its own bath.
It was late, and I decided to do a more thorough inspection of the place in the morning after a good night's rest. My slumber was punctuated by weird thoughts of something lumbering around me, making loud calls and angry bellows, sounds I could feel more than hear.

II. Discovering the City,
or He Will Live Again

I awoke around nine o'clock the next morning and went into the kitchen to make myself some breakfast. There were eggs in the refrigerator, but when I tried the stove, I found the gas had been shut off. Not finding anything ready-to-eat, I decided to head to the market to pick up some fruit, and decided to ask the building superintendent about it when I returned.
The marketplace is an imposing sight to any newcomer to the town, and I was no exception. The place was a maze of low hanging ceilings and narrow walkways that extends from a center in the town square to encompass several buildings and many of the surrounding sidewalks. There is a section for meat, in which featherless chickens lie still and lifeless and the heads of pigs stare up at you through glassy eyes, and a section for fruits and vegetables, where I was now. I would have picked up some bacon, but the stove was out. I was looking at some grapes when a woman called me into her stall. She was indigenous, like most of the other vendors, and had brown skin that was heavily lined from many days of labor under the sun. She wore a thin golden chain, looped around her neck several times.
“My child,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “My child.” I went into her booth. “I am very sorry about your father.”
Somewhat surprised, I said, “How do you know who I am?”
“You look just like him. You have his eyes. But listen to me.” She pulled out a stool from behind her table and motioned for me to sit on it. I did. “Your father was a good man, but a man possessed. I know this because he came to me many times for help and advice. Do you know what he was studying at the time of his death?”
“No. We weren't close.”
“He was studying the mountain. The mountain is steeped in ancient knowledge, and your father went to the mountain many times during the last few years. I am old, now, and I know the mountain better than anyone. I know the paths the lead to the top, I know the best place to sit and watch the sun rise over the ocean. But most of all, I know the terrible things that happen to those who look too deep into the mountain's closely-guarded secrets.” She took out a cigarette and lit it. She did not smoke it, but merely held it, staring at me intently. “I had a brother once. He was a lot like your father, eager, hard-working, intelligent, and too closed-minded to put two and two together when they're sitting in front of you. My people live on the mountain, and most have deeply-set beliefs about the dangers that lurk there. But my brother was different. He went to school in the city, instead of at home, and they filled his head with the ideas that our beliefs are silly superstitions with no basis in fact. By the time I was born, he had already graduated, and my mother kept me home, seeing how he had become. When I was ten, my brother, against the warnings of my family, decided to climb to the top of the mountain. Five days later, he returned, running and screaming into the house about visions he had seen in the clouds, about sounds that were not human but spoke with a human voice, of strange flashes of light in the middle of the night, and other things that my mother covered my ears for. He collapsed a few hours later, his whole body tensed like a coiled spring. He was dead by that night.
“Your father was like that. He came to me often, asking for the histories of the mountain, the stories that my people have passed down to one another from generation to generation. He wanted to know where he could find the caves on the mountain, and the meaning of what he found inside them. Then, one morning three weeks ago, he asked me how to climb to the peak. Of course, I did not want to tell him. I liked your father, he was a good man, who did not laugh behind his hands at the knowledge of my people. But he insisted, even knowing the story of my brother. He told me that if I did not show him the way, he would find it himself. Knowing he would do just as he said, I gave him an amulet that my mother gave to me, an amulet that would protect him against the dangers of the mountain. It has been handed down from generation to generation, for the occasions when travel on the mountain is required. My brother refused to take it, scorning it as 'old magic, soon forgotten.' Jackson thought differently, or at least respected the beliefs of my people enough to humor me by taking the amulet and wearing it. I stalled him for a few more days, telling him that the rain had made the road impassable, but in the end I walked him up to the forest where I knew there to be a path, and he disappeared into the leaves. When he returned, I was working in the field, harvesting. He was not running or screaming, as my brother had, so I thought that perhaps he had not been touched by whatever lurks on the mountain. I motioned to him to come over, but he just stared at me, his eyes blank and lifeless, and continued down the road. It was then that I knew the madness had infected him as well, just in a different way. He did not take the amulet with him, and I knew with sorry that he was lost forever.”
She beckoned me closer with a finger, and put her mouth up to my ear. “Do not follow your father to the grave. He is dead, but you are not. Do not tread the muddy path to bathe in that river of sadness. Your life is the future. His life is the past. Leave the past in the past and look to the future. There is only death behind you.” She leaned back into her chair. “Would you like to buy some strawberries? One pound and a half for one dollar. Very good price.”
“Who are you?”
“These are very fresh. I picked them this morning.” She held up a green plastic bag with strawberries. I handed her a dollar and put the bag with the rest of my purchases.
“What did my father say to you about the things that he found?” I pressed, but she was already talking to a passerby behind me.
“Fresh strawberries! One pound for one dollar! Fresh strawberries!”
I thanked her for the fruit and went back to my car, my mind still on what she had said.

That afternoon, I took some time to go to the local cemetery and visit my father's grave. As my mother had only been informed of my father's passing after the funeral (I think one of my father's friends had heard vaguely of his son and ex-wife and put time into locating us only after the event), I had not been present when my father's body had been interred. Being the first day of November, a slight chill was in the air, and I donned a woolen jacket I found in the closet. The weather would not turn much colder than this, as south-central Florida did not have much of a winter if it had one at all.
The cemetery was a nice enough place, not too dirty, and when I arrived, I noticed several people, about thirty or so, standing around different graves. The bodies were not buried, but stored above-ground in what I can only think of as shelves, almost. There were rows and rows of wide white stone rectangular prisms, which held the bodies. One side of each prism was a wall of glass, divided into many squares arranged on a grid five high and as many as forty across. Each pane of glass was on a hinge that opened outwards, and behind each pane was a space about nine inches wide that contained a collection of flowers, photographs, cards depicting Jesus or the Virgin Mary, and a plaque, usually obscured by the other objects, telling the name and date of birth and death of the person who had died. Behind these was a plaster wall, and behind that, I felt for sure, was the corpse.
The people I saw were of all ages. Several elderly women were congregating around a particularly well-adorned window, crossing themselves and praying in deep, rasping voices, and two children chased each other through the labyrinth of stone. Most of the men and women who were more middle aged were all engaged in the same activity; some sort of cleaning-up of the grave of whoever they had come to visit. One family had produced a ladder, and one man had climbed it and was now replacing an old and faded photograph with a newer version of the same picture. Another man walked past me carrying a can of white paint, with which he set to brightening up the walls of one of the graves. Most of the people had brought new flowers with them and were arranging them in a pleasing way that fit in the tight space between the glass and the wall. Looking around further through the cemetery, I saw that some families had bought personal crypts, which were like little houses among apartment buildings. These were filled with candles and flowers, and a few particularly impressive examples had thick glass windows in the shape of a cross in the walls, which were illuminated by an electric light that was permanently on.
Standing in the entrance to the cemetery, I realized that I did not know where my father's resting place was. The caretaker's office was off to the right, and, as there was a light on inside, I went over, hoping for a map. The caretaker, a man by the name of Jay Schoen, was about forty years old, with graying hair and a bright blue suit that seemed out of place in the morbid atmosphere. He was amicable enough, and when I asked him for a map to find my father's grave, he immediately offered to escort me there personally. As we walked along the rows, he told me that he had been present at my father's funeral, as he was at every funeral in the cemetery.
“Let me tell you,” he said, “that was a sad thing. I don't suppose your father had many buddies, as it was just me, the priest, and three other guys and a woman. But I suppose they did all right by your daddy. He was all wrapped up in a white sheet, just like they're supposed to be, and they had some nice flowers all picked out for him, and the woman was crying to beat the band and everything. Usually when they got someone buried up here in a poor man's grave, no offense meant to you or your dad, but let's call a spade a spade, usually when they got someone buried up here in a poor man's grave, they don't got none of that. Or they wouldn't be burying him in no poor man's grave in the first place. That was strange all right. Like that was all willing to get him the right stuff for when they was going to see him last, but they weren't willing to put up for even a thing of glass for him, you know what I'm saying?”
We squeezed past a family reading out prayer cards, and I said to Schoen, “What are all these people here for?”
“Day of the Dead.”
“I thought that was tomorrow.”
“There's a special tradition here held by the natives. You see how all the people here are indigenous? They come here every November First, to clean up the graves and do housekeeping stuff. They say it's because they have to clean up after the spirits that come out on Halloween, but I think it's just to avoid mixing with the normal people. They keep to themselves. I mean, what's supposed to happen, are the rotting corpses going to get up and start dancing the boogie? You know what I'm saying?”
We turned left and continued down one of the rows. “This one here's your pop.” Schoen pointed at a grave that was third from the bottom and somewhere near the end of the row. I saw immediately what Schoen had meant by “poor man's grave.” There was no glass covering for it, no pictures, no plaque, just the words “Jackson Reed, 1958 – 2008” written in block letters with black paint. I suddenly wished I had brought some flowers with me. Schoen, who seemed to understand what I was thinking, or perhaps he just wanted to leave, said, “If you want, I can run and get you some chrysanthemums I got back in my office.” I nodded, and Schoen turned and began to trot back the way we had come.
I did not quite know how to feel about being there, at my father's grave. He was the man who gave me life, but he had never really been a part of that life. Even though we lived in the same state, he never came up to visit me, although it must be said that I never tried to visit him either. My only thoughts about him were heavily influenced by my mother who muttered angrily under her breath whenever his name came up in the conversation. Which did not happen often after I turned ten and realized that my mother hated this man. She never told me why the two divorced either, although I asked her once or twice. She would simply grumble incomprehensibly about “incompatibility” or something equally mundane.
With my mind still churning this over, it took me a few minutes to realize that there was something not quite right about the grave. In the white plaster wall that separated my father's remains from the world, someone had carved five strange symbols into the paint underneath the date of death. They looked something like this:



Confused as to what these meant, and wondering why someone had carved them into the wall beneath my father's name, I did not notice Schoen's approach until he was right behind me. “Here you are,” he said, and handed me a bouquet of pink chrysanthemums. He saw what I had been looking at. “Well, I'll be damned. I'll get some paint out here and clean that up for you right away. Probably some young thugs came out here for fun last night, thought they'd have a few laughs messing up graves on Halloween.”
“Thanks.”
“It's my job. You know, I think I saw the bastard who did this, excuse my language. I always stay up late on Halloween, specifically to catch the kids who do this sort of stuff, and it was around eleven thirty or so. I was watching some TV, I don't remember exactly what was on, nothing good on that late, you know. But anyways, I'm watching the TV, and all of a sudden I hear something coming from outside. We don't have a gate on the cemetery, never seen a real reason for one, so I figured it was some kids coming in. I look out the window, and I see walking past some guy dressed in a white robe. Now, it was Halloween, so wearing a costume ain't so weird. I'm about to go out there and find out what he's doing when I see that he's carrying the biggest son-of-a-bitch knife I've ever seen. I mean, this thing was at least a foot long, maybe a foot and a half. And it's shining under the street lights, real bright, right? But it wasn't made of metal, at least, not any metal I know, 'cause it was jet-black, with streaks of gold. I don't think it was painted, neither, because when you paint something it don't shine like that knife there was. And it had some of the strangest things on it, too. There were lines running all up and down the blade, not like paint but like they'd been carved into it somehow. And then set with gold. I tell you, I've never seen anything like that. But it was a big-ass knife, so of course, I'm not going out there to tangle with Jack the Ripper, and I call the cops. By the time they show up, this guy's gone, though I was watching the gate the whole time, and he never left. That's the only way out, unless he jumped over the damned wall or disappeared into thin air. It was probably some son-of-a-bitch kid, scratching up paint so I have to clean it up. Jesus Christ. Well, there are your flowers. I'm sorry they're pink. I tried to find some white ones, or at least some red ones, but pink's all I got. And beggars can't be choosers. I'll leave you alone now, and I'll fix those scratches up later tonight.” Schoen ambled away, humming a tune I recognized very faintly to himself, and I was all alone with my father.
Except I suddenly felt the presence of someone watching me, and when I turned, I saw a group of four children directly behind me, staring, their eyes wide and bright with dark centers. They oldest was no older than ten, and then it progressed down by about two years each to the youngest, was perhaps four and a half. This child was standing behind her oldest brother, peeking out from behind a pants leg, silent and unmoving. Quite embarrassed by the extreme attention, I stood, still holding the bouquet, and stared back. After several long moments, one of the older women saw us in deadlock and hissed at the children. They broke off from me to glance at her, and then back to me as they hurried away. I have seen that look before, in the eyes of children watching a funeral procession go by, knowing that they are looking on something they do not fully understand yet they know well enough to shiver with fright once the hearse has passed on. It was the glare of a child watching a corpse.
Though I may place undue importance on the chance meeting now, knowing what I do and emphasizing certain aspects of my stay in Tropic Park with the benefit of hindsight, as soon as I left the cemetery, the few seconds of awkwardness were forgotten, and even the words of the fruit seller that morning were a distant memory. I found my way back to my apartment, not paying much attention to the road.

I had walked past the building super's office and was almost to the stairwell before I connected the chicken I had bought to cook for supper and the stove in my apartment. Remembered about the gas, I turned around and went back to tell him about it. The super was a short, balding man, whose nametag read “Harold Ipsies” in bright gold letters below the words “Building Manager.” He was round, and wore his belt comfortably low around his waist, with a not inconsiderable mass hanging out above it. There was a toothpick hanging from his mouth, just below a great mustache so bushy it seemed plastered on. When I came into his office, his stared up at me, switched his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other with his tongue, and went back to the papers in front of him.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked in a dull voice that was more an annoyed acceptance of an unfortunate circumstance than a genuine offer of assistance.
“Yes, I'm Thomas Reed, Jackson Reed's son, and I'm staying in his condo on the tenth floor while I look after his affairs.”
Ipsies gave me another look. “So you're Jack Reed's boy. He said something about you once. Said you went to some fancy college up North.”
“I did. I went to Dartmouth, which is about as far North as you can get without being in Canada.”
It seemed that Ipsies missed my attempt at humor, which I admit was not my best, because he then said, “I went to college too. And now I'm here cleaning up shit off the ceiling of number 3B because the 4B toilet got clogged up, and then looking through pages of complaints about the smell from the same guy who thought it'd be funny to flush a whole roll a toilet paper down the drain in one go. Just for laughs. So excuse me if I don't care how far away you went to school.”
“Look, I can see you're having a bad day-”
“Yeah, I'm sorry, but when you spend all afternoon trying to wipe shit out of your eyes, you kind of lose your patience. What can I do for you?”
“There's something wrong with the gas in my apartment. It's not working.”
“I'll come up and take a look. Beats reading this bullshit.”
The elevator was still out, though Ipsies assured me he had already called someone to come and fix it, so we walked up the ten flights of stairs to my apartment. I unlocked the door and Ipsies, very much out of breath, followed me into the kitchen. He began poking and prodding at the stove, opening the oven and looking inside, turning the knobs, and finally pronounced, “Your pilot light's out.” He sat down heavily into on of the chairs while I fumbled through the cabinets and drawers looking for matches. “We should of had electric ones put in ages ago,” he said, “but the guy what owns this place is a real stickler, a real penny pincher. All the old folks here are. You know, you're a Florida boy, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was actually born here, in Tropic Park, just moved upstate with my mom after my parents divorced.”
“I thought your dad said something about that. Hey, can you get me a beer?”
I found a bottle in the refrigerator and gave it to Ipsies. “Did you know my dad well?”
“Not really. He'd been living here about eight years, I guess, just got here a few years after I did. He was a nice guy, never had any problems with him really. Except every once in a while, during the winter, he'd come back from somewhere tracking mud all over the place. Rainstorms are really common during the winter, and they can pop up out of nowhere, when it's been sunny and seventy-five all day and you leave the house in shorts and a t-shirt. It's happened to me once or twice myself, though I've lived here long enough not to be fooled by good weather. But you're dad, it seemed like every other week he was bringing dirt in heres. Now, every time somebody steps in a puddle on their way home, it means an extra half hour of mopping for me.” He took a long pull from the bottle. “So you can imagine I got kind of upset with him over that. So finally, about the third or fourth time this happens, I go up to his apartment and bang on the door. He opens it, and I start to yell at him about the mess he's making all over my building, but he's just standing there. I take a minute to look him up and down, and I can see that he's pretty messed up. I mean he's got dirt all over his clothes, which are soaking wet too. He's got scratches on his face and hands pretty bad, and his eyes are red like he hasn't slept in days. I ask him if he's doing okay, and he's too far out to even put together what I'm saying. So I go in and get him to sit down at the table and I get him a beer. Usually, I just leave the tenants alone, but this guy was looking just absolutely pitiful, and I couldn't help but do something. Anyways, we're sitting here, right at this table, and I ask him what he's been up to that he looks like something the cat dragged in. With a beer in him, he's got it together all right, and he says he was up on the mountain. Up on Lonesome Mountain! What a white guy would want with that mountain, I don't know. Especially in December. In the winter, it rains something fierce, and I sure as hell wouldn't want to be caught on the side of the mountain in a downpour. Not that I'd ever want to go up there. We got no business up there. Leave it to the Indians and their kind. At least I got no business up there. Your dad, he has a different idea. He starts rambling about how it's his duty to be up there, how he's doing something that'll 'revolutionize' the field or something like that. Doesn't even say what field it is, just how 'revolutionary' what he's studying up there. Naturally, I'm a little curious about what he's got going on, so I start asking questions about this and that, and he's telling me that he's got a whole new language up there! You believe that shit? He's saying he's found writing up in the caves up there that ain't nobody seen. Now, I don't know cave writing from chicken scratch, but he shows me a bit of stuff that he'd copied down, and by now he's good and riled up about this, trying to teach me the alphabet and everything.”
“Did you learn it?”
“Now, I went to college, but that don't mean I want to get mixed up in learning Chinese or some shit like that. I left that all behind thirty years ago, and I don't want to get back into that, especially not with some weird language no one cares about. If I'm going to put my time into learning something, it better be good, something I can make some money of off. And your dad may have this place, but rich, he wasn't. Hell, sometimes I wondered how he could afford this place, not having no job what I could see. Way I figures it, he had someone paying for him, telling them he had found some new language up in the hills and he needed their help to finance his discoveries. No disrespect meant to you nor your kin, Tom.”
“Don't worry. None taken. He wasn't all that great a father to me anyway.”
Ipsies finished his beer. “Well, I'm going to get going. It was real pleasant to talk to you. You're a nice enough guy, not all mixed up like your old man. Give me a call if you get any more problems. Like if one of your light bulbs burns out, or something.”
“Will do. Sorry about that overflowing toilet.”
“Yeah, life's a bitch, ain't it?”
“And then you die, so fuck the world and let's get high.”
Ipsies chuckled to himself, though I don't think he thought it was funny.

With the chicken hissing and sputtering on the stove as the oil began to heat up and a kettle next to it (Ms. McBride had given me a few bags of her homemade tea), I decided to look over my father's study to see if I could find anything on the language Ipsies said my dad had been working on. I groped around for the light switch, and when I found it, flicked it on. My first real impression of the study, as my glance the previous night had been very quick and inattentive, was that it was clean. Usually, when I think of a study, I picture it with papers strewn everywhere, pens and pencils askew, perhaps a compass or ruler lying around, general chaos. Many of my professors' offices in college had been like that. But what I found in that room was just the opposite. What little there was was neat, and organized. Even the chair to the desk was pushed in. I saw nothing to write with, and, indeed, nothing to write on. Opening the drawers presented me with nothing more than a harsh scraping noise and a cloud of dust. Looking on the bookshelves yielded just as much.
Disappointed, I shut the light off to leave the room, but as I did so, I thought I caught sight of something in the dark room. It was as though a black ribbon had drifted lazily across the ground in the corner of my vision. I turned the light back on, but saw nothing in the room that was not there before. I turned the light off. Still nothing. Back on. My cell phone began to ring in the kitchen, this normal sound shaking me greatly, and I realized I had been caught in a kind of trance in that silent apartment. Sounds came back, and I heard the pops of the chicken cooking and the water bubbling in the teapot. I closed the door and ran to the phone.
“Hello?”
“Yeah. Thomas Reed?”
“Speaking.”
“This is George Taylor. I was a friend of your dad's. Can we meet some place to talk?” His voice was rough, hurried, and soft, like someone was listening to his conversation and he did not want them to hear.
“How did you get this number?”
“Your dad gave it to me. Can you meet me tomorrow for lunch? There's a restaurant called Sherry's on beachside near the South Causeway.”
“How did my dad get this number?”
“How should I know? Meet me tomorrow.”
“What time?”
“One o'clock. No! Ten.”
“That's a bit early for lunch.” But he was already gone.
The kettle whistled.
That night, I dreamed more vague and unsettling thoughts, pierced with gigantic movements beyond my sight and I woke feeling distinctly unrested.

III. Discovery of the Notes,
or Madness Begets Madness

The next morning found me sitting at a table in Sherry's with a plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes were fairly good, but the meatloaf was too greasy for my tastes. Sitting across the booth from me was a thin black man, of a medium build, with short black hair and a stubble on his cheeks that showed some time of ragged growth. He had no food, and was clenching and unclenching his hands until he switched to rubbing his hair and scratching his nose.
“Well,” I said, after we had been sitting for some time without speaking. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Look, I knew your father. We've known each other for more than ten years, now, and we've been business partners for the last eight.”
“What kind of work did you two do? Did it have anything to do with the language he said he discovered?”
“I'm getting to that. Please don't interrupt. There'll be time for questions when I'm done. I've been sitting on this for a long time, and I need to tell you. If I had said something earlier, Jackson might still be here.”
“Hey, what is this?”
“Just listen. Your father was always interested in history. We met at the doctor's office, and his idea of waiting room reading was an anthology of ancient Native American folklore. He was pretty into it. But about eight years ago, your father tells me that he's been putting together stories about the indigenous people who live on Lonesome Mountain. He showed me what he had, and it was some interesting stuff, all the kinds of ancestral lines a history buff would go crazy for. Now, I'm not really one for that sort of thing, I'm more of a business, marketing type guy myself, but then he started telling me about something that even a layman like me could see the benefit of. He's telling me that on the mountain are several caves that have never been fully explored. Which I understand. Just going near that thing gives me the chills. But he says that, according to a lot of the indigenous people he asked, those caves are filled with writing dating back to long before Columbus ever got here, perhaps even before Christ, and he thinks that he's just the one to find out what the writing says. He was real fired up for it, I mean, he was going nuts. At first, I thought he was going to ask me for money to help fund his crazy hunt, but instead, he just wanted me to look up some ways to make money off of the find he knew was coming. Jackson was very keen on making historically significant discoveries, but he kept his mind enough in the present to think that he might want a steady cash flow. So he sold his house on the beach, which was a beautiful thing, by the way, and buys that condo you're living in now. That was during the middle of the housing boom, so he got a pretty large amount of money out of the deal, and so he quit his job and devoted himself full time to working out the mystery of the mountain. As it turned out, there were lots of caves with lots of writing, and it was, by Jackson's best guess, a lot older than any kind of writing anyone had found before. That would have been enough for me, sell the info to universities, museums, the people who have the real tools and time and funding to look into this stuff, but it wasn't for Jackson. No, he said to me that no one was going to steal his find out from under him, and so I let it go, and he went right on working. But things went south in a bad way. Every time your father and I met, he seemed more and more distant, nervous, anxious even, like he couldn't wait to get back to working on studying those symbols. Finally, he stopped showing up to meetings, with only a vague apology when I called him on the phone. So I go over to his apartment to see what's up, because he just was not acting like himself, and he starts telling me these crazy stories about seeing people, strange and ancient people telling him stuff about the past, about the writing. He says they keep giving him hints as to what the language means, that's he's real close to a breakthrough. But he looked off his rocker, to me. It looked like he hadn't slept in days, and smelled like he hadn't showered in all that time either. His clothes were torn up, and from the mud on his floor, I could tell he'd been up on the mountain. When it rains, the paths all turn to mud, and it is damn near impossible to wipe that stuff off. I told him to take a break from everything, wash up, get some rest, go on vacation, but of course he refused. Then, about four weeks ago, he gives me a call, telling me that he is right on the verge of a discovery, that he is about to crack the code in the language and make us both rich. I try to ask him some things and he breaks in with a rambling tale about meeting a man named Jonas Tyris in one of the caves, that Tyris told him that the secret is hidden on the top of the mountain. Now, Jonas Tyris is dead, has been for about one hundred and fifty years. He was a famous historian who lived in Florida and studied the natives here, a lot like your father did. I told your father he was crazy, seeing dead people and listening to what they told him. If I had taken some action then, we might have gotten your dad some help before he drowned himself. I'm sorry. I didn't realize how dangerous he was to himself.”
“How exactly did my father die?”
“I'm not sure of all the details, but he threw himself into the river and floated out to sea. They found his body a week later, washed up on the beach.” Taylor breathed deeply. “Thanks for listening. I really needed to tell you that. I've been holding on to that for a while.”
“How much do you know about what my father was studying?”
“Not much. He showed me the copies he had made of what was written on the cave walls, but like I said, I'm not into that kind of thing. They were just a bunch of circles and curves with lines through them.”
“Did he ever show you a translated version of what he had?”
“No. I'm not even sure they really meant anything. And I don't know how Jackson intended to make progress with it, because the was no understandable language correlated with it to help translate. It was gibberish, a madman's quest. The Aztec language down South, they're still trying to figure out what it means, and they've been working on it for years. I've been up to some of those caves since your father died, and the writing's there, just like he said. But it just doesn't mean anything.”
“You don't think there's any way he could have translated that?”
“Look, Tom. Your father, my friend, got so wrapped up into solving something that couldn't be solved that he lost it and killed himself. He was a great man, and if he had devoted his time to something else, he might have made a name for himself, but instead he got more and more involved on a wild goose chase. He started seeing things, people who weren't there, and-” All of a sudden, Taylor stopped talking and stared intently over my shoulder at the window behind me. “They're watching us! They found me!” I turned around. There was no one looking at us through the large pane of glass, no one at all outside except a few beach goers with towels and an umbrella.
“There's nobody out there,” I told him.
“They're coming around to the back.” His eyes were wide and his hands slowly tore a paper napkin to pieces. They think I'm going to go out that way because I saw them, try to slip around, get away. They think they're going to catch me, but I'll fool them. They'll see!” Taylor stood up hurriedly, knocking a plastic cup to the floor and spilling ice everywhere. “They'll see!” he yelled, and he was running out the front door before I could stop him. I watched through the window as he ran out into the street and was hit by a car, which flung him fifteen feet into the air before bouncing once on the hood and landing in a crumpled pile on the blacktop.

Eight years of study had to yield some form of results, some tangible work that I could lay my hands on, and yet my father's apartment was bare. After a more thorough search of the study turned up nothing, I extended my search to the rest of the apartment. In the living room, I tore open the back of the couch with a knife to reveal only the stuffing behind it. Pulling the stove out from the wall, I only unearthed a few very surprised cockroaches who scuttled out of sight into the cabinets. There was nothing under the mattress or inside the dresser drawers. I even checked inside the tank of the toilet. Nothing.
Back in the study, I sat down heavily on the desk chair and thought about what Taylor had said. Taylor himself was in the hospital, his condition, I did not know. His abrupt change from nervous but sane to running into the path of an oncoming Honda Civic was singular, but as I had no previous knowledge of the man, I thought that perhaps this just happened occasionally. Perhaps he was prone to severe mood swings. But now that I knew my father's work had been so copious, that it had been here just three weeks before, I had to find it, or at least some concrete evidence that it existed. The work could not all just, disappear.
A fly buzzed next to my ear. I swatted it away, but it came back to my other side. I clapped my hands together, trying to crush it between them, but it flew out of the way in that unique manner of flies and landed on the wall. I rose and, walking slowly and deliberately so as not to alarm the fly, stalked towards the insect. When I was within arm's length, I swung my hand towards it and mashed the fly against the wall. There was a hollow sound. I pulled my hand back and stared at the yellow pus oozing out of the mangled body of the fly on the blue paint of the study. I knocked on the wall. A hollow sound. I tried other parts of the wall, but they were solid.
Under the kitchen sink, I found a hammer, and, not even thinking what Ipsies might say, used it against the space where I had heard an empty noise. The wall was cheap plasterboard, and a few blows were sufficient to break a fairly large-sized hole in it. Behind the hole was a thin rectangular cubby, but it was utterly empty. My grip slackened, and the hammer fell to the floor, making a soft thud as it hit the carpet and bounced. Despair filled me, and I was unsure whether I wanted to cry, or yell. Another fly drifted past my ear, making that high buzzing sound that produces immediate feelings of annoyance and disgust, and my despair turned to anger. The fly alighted on the back of the cubby, and I slapped at it, intending to kill it as I had killed the first. Instead, I pushed back the panel to reveal another space behind that one. There was a false back to the cubby, and in the gap between the false back and the wall of the apartment on the other side of mine was a tightly rolled up sheaf of papers. Removing these and unfurling them, I found that my hands were shaking slightly. I took a deep breath and calmed myself, and began to read them.
Except that I could not. They were the circles and lines that I had seen written on my father's grave. Page after page in the language that no one, except, supposedly, my father, could understand. While I had the notes, I could not read them. And some of the pages were partially obscured by a dark brown substance that crumbled off when I picked at it. A couple of flies landed on the pages now, and I brushed them away, resolving to purchase flypaper to get rid of them later on. Flies are disgusting creatures, with loathsome bodies and too large eyes that watch every direction once. When they land, they wipe their legs together like a greedy man cackling with glee, or sometimes, they run one leg back over their wing. And the horrid noise they make when they fly past your ear, so high and inhuman! But I digress.
I could make nothing of the indecipherable marks on the page, so I decided that I would sleep on the matter and wake in the morning with a fresh head. I thought maybe I would take the pages to Ipsies, or to Taylor, and see if they could remember anything that would help me understand what these meant. After setting the script on the kitchen table, I washed my face and nestled into my bed. It had been a long day.

IV. History of the City,
or Visions of Singular Content

Without much more than a basic idea of what my father had set out to do, and with no further leads on how to get there, and still, although I wouldn't admit it to myself at the time, a little shaken over the actions and subsequent accident of James Taylor the day before, I decided to take a day off from the search. When waking, I said out loud, “Life's a bitch and then you die, so fuck the world and let's get high,” as though that explained my reason for a vacation inside a vacation. I had absolutely no idea what to do, whether there were any landmarks in Tropic Park to visit, or museums, or anything, but I was still feeling in fairly high spirits. After all, I had a free day and I did not have to worry if my mother was going to nag me about finding a job. Sometimes, when I was just leaving the house and she had two or three of her girlfriends over, they would all stop talking to look at me and just nod to each other. In the bedside night table, I found my father's library card, and thought I might take the time to go there. As I washed up and shaved, I whistled a tune I had learned at a very young age, I could never remember exactly where. With the tune on my lips, I left my apartment and ran into Holly McBride, leaving her own condo with several plastic bags. I said hello.
“Why, hello, dearie. I haven't seen you in a couple of days. How have you been?”
“I've been doing all right.”
“Say, what was that tune you were whistling just before you saw me?”
“Oh?” I sang out the tune again, this time in a series of 'da, da, da da das'. “I don't remember the words though. I learned it when I was really little.”
McBride nodded to herself knowingly. “Now that I hear it clearly, I think I know the words.” She began to sing, and she had the most beautiful voice.
“I'll go no more a-climbing,
That Lonsesome Mountainside.
Though now I be a-rhyming,
I nearly up and died.
It was last Sunday, a beautiful day,
When I set off up the road.
Up above the sun was shining,
In the fields, the roosters crowed.
The birds were chirping, flies were buzzing,
I was happy as can be,
But when I got onto the slope,
Well then things changed for me.
The sky grew black, the birds stopped singing,
And everything was silent,
But then the heavens opened up,
And Oh the storm was violent.
It rained on me like God was crying.
I couldn't get down, though I was trying.
I lost my strength, I couldn't stop sighing.
Believe you me 'cause I ain't lying.
Oh it was a wild ride,
'Til a voice spoke in my ear.
It said 'Don't you climb that Mountainside,
'Lest it be the last of you we hear.'
I ran back down, headed for town,
As fast as I could go.
Lucky I was that I could get down,
Very lucky, that I know.
So I'll go no more a-climbing,
That Lonesome Mountainside.
Were it not for that voice's timing,
I really might have died.”
She ended on a high note, her voice coming to an abrupt stop. I applauded, and she gave a short bow. “That was really amazing, Holly. Have you sung professionally before?”
“I still do. Every Tuesday, down at the First Baptist Church of Christ, for Bingo night, you know. A lot of us old-timers down there, but we got some young folk too. You might find yourself a lady friend to take back up to Ormond with you.” She winked in a very exaggerated way. “Say, have you been to the beach yet? Now there's a great place to meet the ladies.”
“As a matter of fact, I don't have anything planned for today, so I may do just that. Thanks for the suggestion.”
“You are very welcome, my dear.”
“Oh, do you know of any museums or anything interesting to go visit here in the city?”
“Well, there is the Tropic Park Museum of Antiquities, down on Florida Avenue. That's on the mainland, you know. Just go across the North Causeway and then go two more blocks and take a left. It should be on the right, if I haven't gotten all turned around. I'm not the best at giving directions, especially not in the morning before I've even got my groceries!” She held up the plastic bags to indicate that these were part of the process of going shopping. “If it's sightseeing you want, though, I suggest you take the water taxi. You can catch it off the mainland side of the Central Causeway. Real nice outfit, takes you from here, gives you a nice tour of the inland waterway, and lets you off up at JP's Fish Camp, a nice restaurant for lunch, if you like seafood. Which you should, being a Florida boy, right? Oh, and there's the statue of Saint Michael, up just a little bit on Lonesome Mountain. We call it 'The Lookout.' Saint Michael's the patron saint of Tropic Park, you know.”
“Thanks a lot, Holly. I think I'll take you advice. Sounds like a nice adventure.”
“If you want adventure, though, why don't you try really climbing Lonesome Mountain?” She began to sing again as she went to wait for the elevator.
“I'll go no more a-climbing,
That Lonesome Mountainside!”

The Tropic Park Museum of Antiquities was a very small affair, found on the second floor of a building that also housed the Samuel Burbank Funeral Home and Insurance Company. You reached the place by walking up a very narrow flight of stairs that was littered with Styrofoam fast food cups and paper wrappers. The path let out onto a receptionist's desk, which was currently empty with a sign that read in hastily scribbled letters “Just Stepped Out For A Bite To Eat. Please Feel Free To Look Around Until We Come Back.” There were doorways to the left and to the right, and I took the one to my right.
It opened out into a small chamber with several glass display cases set on white pedestals. Each case held a different artifact from the indigenous people of the region, most from before colonization, and each had a small printed read-out saying what the piece was, who found it, and when it was dated to. There were several pieces of pottery, jars, cups, pots, the like, all painted quite beautifully with pictures of women sewing, or men hunting, or crops growing, or some equally mundane scene from ancient history. I also found a few pieces of jewelry, carved, so the plaque said, from the black rocks formed by solidified lava. One piece of the collection in particular caught my eye. Hanging on the wall was a full set of clothing for a woman. The clothes indigenous women wear nowadays consist of a white blouse with flowing, embroidered sleeves, a skirt either of blue, pink, or golden-brown, and a long golden chain around the neck, looped many times so it seemed that they wore many necklaces. The set on display was a full dress of a thick material that opened down the front. I suppose it was more of a robe than a dress, actually. It was a white material, with elegant designs around the cuffs and the bottom of the dress. Closer inspection showed that the designs were actually symbols from the language my father had been studying.
“Hello.” A middle-aged woman, perhaps forty, had just come into the room behind me. She extended her hand. “Maria Skall. I'm the museum curator.”
I shook her hand. “Hello, Ms. Skall. Thomas Reed. A friend suggested I come see the museum, and I saw the sign on the desk out front, so I just came on in.”
“Very good, very good. Thomas Reed, you said?”
“Yes, but please call me Tom.”
“Are you any relation to Jackson Reed?”
“He's my father, yes.”
“Jackson Reed was a great man. He used to come in here occasionally. I was very sorry to hear about his death. My condolences.”
“Thank you.”
“Would you like me to show you around, tell you a little bit about the history of our little city here?”
“That'd be great, thanks.” We began to walk around the room, Skall stopping every so often to point out one of the more interesting or significant pieces.
“Did you know that this area was home to as many as five hundred people as far back as five thousand years ago?” I shook my head. “Yes. There were two tribes of natives living here. One tribe, the Sih-To clan, lived on the mountain, and got their living through the crops they grew, normal plants, like corn, squash, the type most Native American tribes grew here, and by hunting. You can see here some of their pottery. They used the black rock, basalt, that came from solidified lava floes. Lonesome Mountain isn't active anymore, but it used to erupt every once in awhile back in those days. Nothing in recorded history. The other tribe was the Ri-Zus, and they lived on the coast. Their main source of food was in fishing out in the ocean. They build large canoes, for as many as seven people, and would go out in large convoys to catch fish. The Ri-Zus passed their history through oral tradition down through the village storyteller, much like the African griots. The indigenous people who live on the mountain now are descended from the Ri-Zus, so we still have a lot of their history. Sadly, the Sih-Tos perished in a volcanic eruption, and their village was buried underneath the ashes that were thrown up by the activity, so they left no one behind to tell their story. Still, we know a lot about their culture from what the indigenous people remember, and we have found many of their houses intact, which is where we found their pottery and clothing. This, for example,” she showed me the white robe I had seen earlier, “is an example of the ceremonial dress used by the high priest of the Sih-Tos. The religious activity of the Sih-Tos is very hard to discern. Some of the pottery, like this piece, depict the Sih-Tos praying to the volcano, but there is no evidence of whether they thought of the volcano as a deity, if they were giving thanks for of requesting some type of service, or even what the religious rites were. The Ri-Zus were and still are water-worshipers. Because they practice their They believe in the deity of the sea, Lo Bay, who is thought to be the bringer of the soft rains that nourish the plants and the animals. To honor her, they give an offering of fish to the ocean every full moon. Their devil is Yahsofen, a monster who lives in the ocean and sends out the hurricanes that destroy the boats and drown fishermen caught at sea.”
“If the Ri-Zus were a fishing tribe, why are they living on the mountain now, growing crops instead of catching fish like they used to?”
“I don't know. I never really thought about it before.”
“And you said that the mountain hasn't erupted in recorded history?”
“That's right.”
“What about the written history of the Sih-Tos?”
“So far as we know, they had no written language. The Ri-Zus haven't said anything, and the excavation of the Sih-To village turned up no written documents of any kind.”
“What about here, on the robe?” I showed her the markings on the cuffs.
“There's no indication that those are actual words. They're just designs that the Sih-To priest thought would look pretty, I guess.”
“My father, Jackson, has been studying this language for eight years, and I think he figured out how to read and write it. I've got what could be a novel written in just those symbols. I don't know what they say, and now that my dad's dead, I don't think anyone does. But it definitely means something.”
“That's interesting,” Skall said, with the false voice people use when they want you to think they have an interest in what you are trying to tell them. “I'll ask my brother Randall if he knows anything about it. He's a pretty big history buff himself. Now, if you'll come with me, I'll show you the other items we have on display here.”
In the room to the left of the entrance, there were only a few items. “We're expecting a shipment of new items from a major collector either this afternoon or tomorrow, so we've cleared out this room to make space for all the things. Sorry about the mess, we're repainting too.” There were drop cloths on the floor, and a stray can of paint, and the room had a faint acrylic odor to it. “If you'll come this way, I think you might find something that would interest you.” My guide took my arm and pulled me to one of the displays. Inside the glass case was a necklace of exquisite craftsmanship, smooth black beads forming a neat circle, with a large disc of the same black lava rock at the nadir. Set in the center of the disc was a large red crystal, split in half by a crack across the middle. With a start, I saw the card describing the piece. It said:

Amulet of Protection
2000 B.C.
Basalt and Ruby
Donated by Jackson Reed

“This piece was given to us by your father just a few weeks ago. He said he received it as a gift, but after realizing its obvious archaeological value, he decided it belonged in a museum.” Footsteps sounds on the stairs. “Excuse me for a moment. “The shipment from the collector had arrived, and Skall invited me to stay while she opened the boxes and inspected the contents. I accepted, and helped her move the packages into the left room. There were four boxes, each about three feet by five feet by five feet, made of cardboard and swathed in clear packing tape, and they were fairly heavy.
Skall knelt down in front of one of the boxes and pulled out her keys. She pulled one key across the tape and ripped open the flaps to expose the artifacts beneath. “Oh my,” she said. “This is quite beautiful.” She took her key and slit down the corners of the cardboard, which fell apart to reveal a wooden chest, a highly polished cube of oak with designs inlaid in gold around the edges. The designs were intricate, loops and whorls of varying sizes, tapering off into almost nothing before exploding out in bursts of spiraling beauty. It seemed very old.
Twine held the lid down to the box, and Skall undid the knot on top and removed the string. The lid was very slick, but Skall pried it up with her fingernails and placed it gently on the floor. As she pulled the first item out of the chest, I gave a gasp of recognition, for, although I had never seen it, I had heard it described in detail, and so strange was it that no other description could fit such a thing, and no thing fit such a description. The object was a knife, a black knife with gold inlay so intricate I could not believe that such minute incisions were made by such primitive hands. Surely, this was the knife that Jay Schoen, custodian of the Tropic Park cemetery, had mentioned in his story about the vandal who invaded the cemetery on Halloween.
“Who was the collector who donated all this stuff?” I asked. Skall was preoccupied admiring the knife and did not respond. “Ms. Skall?”
“Yes, sorry?”
“Who was the collector who gave all of these artifacts to the museum?”
“That's confidential information. I'm afraid the donor asked to remain anonymous, and we have to respect their wishes. After all, they're giving up incredibly valuable pieces to the museum for no money, if they want anonymity, they can have it.” She was not really paying attention to me. She put the knife down on the floor and went back to the chest to look at the rest of the items.
Outside, I found the delivery men smoking next to the truck and I asked them who sent the packages. They gave me a name and an address, Jonas Tyris III, West Palm Avenue, which was on the beach side between the Middle and South Causeways. I recognized the name as the historian George Taylor had told me about, the man my father was seeing in visions. This, I concluded, must be a descendant of that man, no longer desirous of his ancestor's ancient collection and so giving it away to the local museum. I wasted no time in hurrying over there, and as I approached, I saw that it was a nice house, far more expensive than anything I could afford. It had great glass windows and palm trees lined the driveway. I parked in the street and went up the walkway to the entrance. I rang the doorbell and stood waiting under the overhanging balcony. A wind blew up, making deep whooshes and ruffling the fronds of the palms in the front yard, and from the darkening sky, I knew it would rain soon.
Presently, I heard a scraping from around the corner of the house, and then a clanging as a metal gate opened and closed, and I saw an old man with a large white beard come round to the front. “Hello,” he said.
“I'm looking for Jonas Tyris?”
“Well, you found him.” I extended my hand, but he stepped back and said, “Sorry, I've been working in the garden, so I've got mud on my hands, my pants, my shoes...” He held the last article up for inspection, and I could see the grime plastered onto it. He took a seat on the bench outside the front door, and motioned for me to do the same. “What can I help you with?”
“Well, my name is Thomas Reed, and my father, Jackson Reed, was studying the history of the Ri-Zu and Sih-To tribes, specifically their form of writing.”
“Ah yes, it's not very well known, but the Sih-Tos had a very unique form of writing. I haven't found any examples myself, it's a guarded secret of the Ri-Zus, but I heard it referenced a few times during my study of the Cherokee culture. Those who had seen the language say it was a congregate of curved lines representing vowel sounds and straight lines for consonants. The spoken form of it has died out now, along with the Sih-Tos. The Ri-Zus had their own language. Imagine, two tribes, living with just a few miles of each other, with completely different languages, customs, religions, art styles, it's amazing when you think about it. There existed very little exchange between the two cultures, besides the necessaries of trade. The Ri-Zus gave their fish for the crops of the Sih-Tos, and they exchanged glass for lava rocks, but there was little beyond that. The Ri-Zus viewed the Sih-Tos with a mixture of fear and hatred. You can see it in their eyes still when you ask about the Sih-Tos. It's like a three thousand year grudge, carried across generations for people who no longer exist.”
“Why, though? What made the Ri-Zus hate the Sih-Tos? What could cause such emnity?”
“I interviewed the oldest man in the village, a man by the name of Jame Kah, who at the time was one hundred and three years old. I don't think he's still alive. But he said that the Sih-To people practiced unspeakable things, that they worshiped something inhuman and evil. Whatever the Sih-Tos did three thousand years ago, I doubt it was as terrible as Jame Kah said. Old stories are rarely reliable. What probably started as a religious misunderstanding was morphed again and again in the retelling that by the time I heard it, it was entirely different from the original version. It's one of the problems with not having a written history from either the Ri-Zus or the Sih-Tos, there are no primary sources to examine and verify what the Ri-Zus tell us.”
“My father did find some sources of information, actually. On Lonesome Mountain, there are several caves that have the strange symbols on them. Although I can't read it, I think Jackson could, because he left behind several pages filled with the language. He is, well, he has been studying it for eight years, you've never heard of him?”
“No, sorry.”
“That's all right. I just thought, the both of you being into history, that you might have met up at some point.”
“Oh, no. I don't get into it with modern historians, sorry. I'm retired now. I finished my work in that area a long time ago.”
“Well, okay. But you are the guy who donated all the items to the Tropic Park Museum of Antiquities, right?”
“Yes, I am the one who put all those artifacts together for them, yes.”
“Do you happen to remember one certain item out of that group? It was a long black knife, about a foot and a half in length, and it had gold running up and down the sides?”
“Yes, I do happen to remember that piece. That is actually a very important piece, one of the most important out of that entire box. So, the Sih-Tos had a very weird religion, one that disgusted the Ri-Zus who dealt with them. One aspect of their religion was animal sacrifice. At the very top of the volcano, they would kill a large animal, usually a deer they had caught alive while hunting, and let its blood drain out into the molten rock in the crater. The knife they would use to kill the deer was one just like the one you describe, although there were a series of such knives. As they got worn, or damaged, they would get replaced with others. The rock, of course, is basalt, from the dried up lava floes, but the gold, no one knows how the Sih-Tos got hold of that. There are no natural deposits of gold anywhere in Florida, but, since the Sih-Tos are dead and the Ri-Zus won't talk about that part of their lives, it's just going to remain a mystery. But there are a lot of such mysteries in the world. How did the Egyptians move stones large enough to build the pyramids with, when the nearest quarries are miles and miles away? How did the people of Easter Island transport their stone heads all that distance, and what was even the point? And I could go on for ages with all the South American tribes who did things back in pre-recorded history that seem impossible to us now with their limited technology.
“There's actually a very interesting story to the way in which I acquired that piece. Now, I've heard legends about the writing of the Sih-Tos, but never actually found it. However, the Cherokee once, in their dealings with the Sih-Tos, had a stone tablet created that contained a message translated in the Sih-To language and in the Cherokee's own language, much like the Rosetta Stone in hieroglyphics, cuneiform, and ancient Greek. And, much like the Rosetta Stone, there are people who can still read Cherokee, so I thought that if I were to get my hands on that stone, I could do the same work and find a way to reproduce the Sih-To language that was lost so long ago. But the Ri-Zu people are very protective of the mountain. They believe that going to the peak of the mountain is like going on a sacred quest, of great religious import and at once very dangerous. I told them I was going up to the top, you kind of have to, they find out no matter what you do, and asked for there advice. They did everything they could to persuade me not to go, but I refused. Finally, they offered me that knife if I agreed not to go up there. Of course, that knife is of great importance archaeologically, and I wasn't going to let a find like that slip through my fingers. I mean, with the question of obtaining the gold, and the use of the knife in their religious ceremonies. So, I decided to let some other young adventurer go searching for the tablet. But sometimes I wonder, if I had been just a little more insistent, a little less greedy and eager for any crumb of history the Ri-Zus would send my way, what would I have found up there? It's bothered me for a long time, and I keep hoping that someone will go there and look, but so far, people have avoided that mountain like the plague. I myself would go, but I'm a bit too old for that kind of thing now. Do you, by any chance, harbor archaeological tendencies?”
“Not in the least,” I assured him. “I'm just looking into my father's work. I have no intention of continuing it. But that's not what I wanted to know about the knife. I talked to a man who said that he saw someone on Halloween carrying that knife, and, by the way he described it, I knew it had to be the same one in your collection. Do you know if anyone removed that piece for any length of time before you sent the stuff to the Museum of Antiquities?”
“Not that I know of. But, like I said, there were several copies made of that knife. It's very possible that someone else got their hands on one. I don't know what else to tell you.”
“Very well. Thank you for your help with this.”
Tyris smiled widely. “Oh, no trouble at all. Give me a ring if you need anything else.”
Walking back down the front path, a thought struck me. “Did you go into archeology because your grandfather was into it? I know he used to be a great historian.”
He seemed confused. “My who?” But then rain began to fall heavily, and I waved goodbye and raced down to my car.

The rain let up as quickly as it had come, and I found myself on a bright afternoon with nothing to do. Seeing as McBride's first suggestion had gone so well, I decided to follow up on her second, and went down to the Central Causeway to find the place that had the water taxi. It was not hard to find at all, just follow the sign that said WATER TAXI and you could not miss it. The building for the outfit that ran the Water Taxi was little more than a trailer with the wheels taken off. As the population burst in Florida, schools had more students than classrooms, so they would buy these small trailers for temporary classrooms that often became a permanent fixture of the system. They were called portables, because when one school got a new wing put on and it didn't need the hothouses anymore, a moving company would come, shift the thing onto a double-wide trailer, and haul it off down I-95 to another school that actually did need it. I hated those things in high school. They were stuffy, the air conditioners in them always broke in May when you needed them most, and they were really to small to be actual classrooms, so the students always ended up crammed up inside, packed like the bodies in the grave apartments.
This portable, the one for the Maritime Exploration Organization, was actually quite well-made, for a portable. The awful carpeting had been removed and replaced with a decent wood flooring of a tree I couldn't place. It smelled better than most of the portables I remembered had, and there was a room air conditioner that was on full blast, which, in early November, I thought was a bit much. The front room, where a woman with dirty blond hair sat behind a counter too high for her to actually see over, contained the usual sort of thing for a Florida tourism business, plush dolphins, rubber lobsters, little books on the anatomy of sharks, that sort of thing. There were several brochures, one a schedule of the water taxi's comings and goings, another of the sort of summer camps the Maritime Exploration Organization did when school let out and stressed parents needed a place to drop their kids. I had done a couple of those myself when I was little. From the schedule, I found that the boat docked at the main headquarters every hour on the hour, then left for a tour of the inland waterway before arriving at JP's Fish Camp at ten minutes to the hour. As the time was twelve fifty, I decided to wait ten minutes and take the next tour. I hadn't eaten yet, and seafood sounded right to me just then.
The woman, not looking up from the latest Nora Roberts novel, sold me a ticket with no enthusiasm and less personality. I thought she would fall asleep right as she took my name. It was overpriced, at fifteen dollars I knew I was being swindled, but I didn't mind all that much. I had money and precious little to spend it on, so I made the decision to splurge this once and regret it in the morning, if I even remembered my trip in the morning. I did remember it, actually, in vivid detail that, like so many other things about my time in Tropic Park, I can never forget. The boat pulled in at eleven fifty-eight, and a couple of guys wearing white shirts with blue anchors on them tied it to the dock. By now, a small group of people with tickets were waiting to get on, but the crew took a collective break to smoke cigarettes. One man went inside the main building for a moment and came out with a clip board, the passenger list for that trip. One by one, he took our tickets and let us shuffle on board, crossing off our names as we passed by.
The boat itself was small, and would only hold about ten people including the crew, so only about six customers per trip and I realized why the bill was so high. I wondered how they did with rain, and then didn't ask when the boat pushed off for parts unknown, the crew working steadily and the captain giving a running commentary of the surroundings. I took it all in apathetically, beating at the flies that buzzed ineffectually around my face. We saw Bird Island, which was the nesting grounds of a whole manner of pelicans and other water fowl and smelled absolutely horrible even from a cautious distance like we wear. One of the birds looked like it was eating another one, but that was only a mother feeding a juvenile. From there, we went down the inland waterway, south, to where the mountain's spring river flowed into it. Our guide often stopped to point out some of the more colorful flora and fauna. Two dolphins swam alongside for about one hundred yards, and we saw a whole flock of Roseate Spoonbills in a small offshoot from the river, swinging their heads back and forth in the way they do when they're eating. There were plenty of red mangroves, with their arching roots like they were going to get up and walk away, and black mangroves, the roots sticking straight up out of the soil. We didn't see any white ones on that trip, white mangroves being especially rare in Tropic Park, as they were in Ormond Beach and the other more southerly cities. It was a boring excursion, one I had done countless times before in New Smyrna Beach's own water taxi, but the sun was out, and it wasn't too cold for a November day, which can get cold even in Florida, so I enjoyed myself, watching the plants go by lazily, laughing loudly and obnoxiously whenever the tour guide gave a piece of misinformation and then refusing to explain the source of my hilarity to the other customers.
But soon my good mood ended, because I thought about Sarah, about how she had loved the Indian River Lagoon at high tide, when the islands were all drowned out and you could see fish darting around above the sand. She was a native of Tropic Park as well, and we met, just as my parents had, at college. The chances of two people from the same tiny town in Florida meeting at Dartmouth, a school that drew students from all over the country, were astronomical. I actually did the math once, to show her how incredible it was, but she just laughed. Always the English major, she only quoted Henry David Thoreau, saying “An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” I remember her jabbing me in the chest with each “Simplicity!” and then laughing again, her voice high and clear. We had wanted to get married, and we were already thinking of our plans, get a house, or an apartment, somewhere in a big city, start a family, get a dog, the whole nine yards, when we learned that she was pregnant.
The wind picked up, turning the tiny ripples on the water into miniature waves which crested and crashed onto the shore making noise I might have been able to hear on a silent night, but certainly not then with the tour guide talking loudly about the invasion of the oysters that had been imported for food in the late eighteen early nineteen hundreds. I didn't even bother to correct this obvious misstatement, preferring instead to watch the waves which perhaps ants could surf. And then I smelled it. We all did, it was a pervasive, intrusive stench, that was drifting slowly towards us. We were on the southern side of the fork created where the river from Lonesome Mountain reached the inland waterway and split into to before going out to sea, creating a large beachside island that needed a Central Causeway to reach it. One of the women on board leaned over the side, and I thought she was going to retch, but her husband helped her back up and calmed her down. Above, I could hear the sounds of the shore birds calling in triumph, and somewhere off to the left, flies buzzed maddeningly.
Red Tide, was what the guide called it, and though he got this right, I've never been able to think of it as Red. When there is too little oxygen in the water for the fish, they guide was saying, the marine life dies and floats to the surface. When the next tide comes in, all the dead fish float in with it, to be washed up on many shores and beaches soon to be littered with tourists and walkers and swimmers and fishers. But no one went to the beach much when the Red Tide, which seemed to me a silly name for something so obviously not red in color. There was first the smell to deal with, and that cut out most people, but the real intense Floridians were not all that distressed by the occasional Red Tide. It was an event they had seen many times before, and would not doubt see many times again. But there was an unspoken understanding that something out in the water had killed a vast number of fish, and that it was still out there, lurking unseen in the darkness of the water, and no one much wanted to find out of that thing would crawl up out of the sea after them. I thought maybe the water taxi would close when they found that it was a Red Tide day, but they had been on the water all day, and would continue to do say. Everyone in the boat was completely safe, the guide said, so long as we tried not to fall out.
I had the opportunity once to see a Red Tide in Baltimore's historic Inner Harbor. It was much like the one I was watching now, with dead fish floating sparsely in the water, their white bellies exposed to the world (White Tide, I thought, and knew this was a better name for the act of nature). I had been out that overcast day in a small blue sailboat with a few other men, none of us having realized that it was neither high tide nor low tide but Red Tide when they rented the boat. Unable to return the boat for a refund, we went out into the harbor anyway, stench and all. One of the interesting things was watching the birds, seagulls, those were, fly down and pick at the fish as they lay on the shore. Not one single fish in the water was disturbed, I supposed then that the birds couldn't be bother with working for the food when there was such an ample supply so easily accessed nearby.
The Red Tide in Tropic Park was different, with respect to the actions of the birds. The island, called Chicken Key by Tropic Park natives, though no one knew why, connected to the mainland by means of the Central Causeway, was a prime feeding site for most of the birds, or so I would have thought. The corpses of the fish, I could spot Red Fish, Black Drum, Pompano, French Grunt, and many others I couldn't name, were piling up along the shore, but the birds, and of these I saw pelicans, Great Blue Herons, white herons, only wheeled around above the place. Some dived for the fish, only to turn away at the last second, as though they had seen that the fish weren't really fish at all, but lures to bring in the birds like fisherman lures catch fish.
What was on Chicken Key was flies. By the thousands they were, maybe by the millions, I couldn't tell from the great black cloud of them that hovered wraith-like over the scene, and I didn't have to be close to them to see the maggots crawling in and out of the fish eyes and stomachs, growing fat and strong so they could grow wings and join their ancestors above. But one had to expect such a gathering of flies during a Red Tide. Flies are attracted to the decaying flesh of animals, as a food source for them and for the progeny they give birth to inside, and it is only natural for a dense population of flies to be present at such a large scale supply of festering meat. What I did not expect to see was the figure, clad in white, crouching down among the flies and the fish. From far away, it was hard to make out any specific details about the figure, but I gleaned that it was a she, from the way she crept lithely from place to place, picking her way through the piles of flesh almost daintily. I could also see the golden embroidery around the cuffs and hem of the robe she wore, the twin of, if not the very same one in the Tropic Park Museum of Antiquities, a fact my subconscious mind put together for me to pick at later, after my conscious mind finish reviewing and analyzing what I could see of the woman.
Because the woman was, and I could see the action very well even from my poor position, choosing a fish, picking it up, and eating it. There was no mistake about it, for I watched her repeat the process at least six times as the water taxi went past. She would squat down, the flies buzzing away from her, and poke through a pile of dead fish until she found one she wanted. Then, she would take it in her hands and begin tearing large ravenous bites out of it. She may have even eaten the bones, I couldn't tell, but she seemed to have an incredibly voracious appetite, and she nearly sprung from fish to fish, her eager hands digging into the next pile with more fervor than the last. None of the other water taxi patrons were watching the display, nor any of the crew. The former were listening to the guide try to draw their attention to the less macabre subject of the mangrove trees, while the latter was mostly asleep. But I didn't feel any need to point out this particular Florida oddity, because I knew it would only upset them. Tourists are, and these were all tourists, of a particularly intemperate mindset, and will nearly pass out at the sight of a fisherman hauling in a baby shark on his line, as happens from time to time.
The water taxi continued on towards its destination, unperturbed by either the Red Tide or the fish woman. I thought of her as one of the people my father told me stories about when I was little, Urlga, the Fisherwoman. I laughed again, but it was a small one, and did little to banish the gloomy atmosphere that had come into my mind with the thought of Sarah. Reading my transcript now, I suppose it would seem strange to the outside viewer that I do not express the utmost disgust for Urlga the Fisherwoman and her strange eating habits. But I am not one to judge, my mother had blessed me somehow in that way, I think, and so long as Urlga didn't hurt anyone, it didn't really matter to me what she did. Certainly, there was no way in hell I was ever going to put a maggot-infested fish corpse in my mouth and swallow it like a well-made hamburger, but if that was how Urlga got what she wanted out of the world, the better for her. Life's a bitch and then you die, so eat the fish while you're still alive. It was only much later when I picked up the subconscious understanding of the woman, which is so often much better than anything my conscious mind comes up with, that I knew why certain fish were honored to be her lunch and others weren't. The fish she ate were still at least somewhat alive.
The boat let out at JP's Fish Camp, just as planned and just on schedule, it being one fifty, and I found that I was quite hungry myself. While I wanted some fish as well, I thought that I could count on the cook at the Fish Camp to make sure it was not raw, and free of insects. Free of bones, as well. And dead, most certainly no longer among the living, though a short trip in the over usually cured that affliction for the marine life. I ordered a plate of Mahi Mahi, which is the name restaurants give to Dolphin Fish when they're worried about scaring off tourists who don't relish the idea of biting into Flipper, no matter how misguided that aversion might be.
By the time I finished my lunch, it was more or less three o'clock. With the afternoon beach walk canceled by the Red Tide, the next several hours stretched ahead of me endlessly. I truly had no idea what I could possibly do for such time that did not involve me coming into contact with fish, flies, or women with eating disorders. I decided eventually on the public library, which was about a ten minute drive over the South Causeway and then back up the Dixie Freeway a ways. I thought vaguely that I might, even though I was on a mini-vacation, take a vacation from the vacation within the vacation and check out some books on the Ri-Zu and the Sih-To people. That afternoon's conversations with Maria Skall and Jonas Tyris III had left me with just a preface knowledge, and I wanted more. My mom sometimes called me the Studious Pitbull as a joke, from the way I really sunk my teeth into any subject I wanted to learn.
The library, called, unimaginatively, Tropic Park County Library, was an ugly tan on brown building that took up almost half a block of development space. More than half of that was parking, and I wondered just what the selection here was going to be. I asked one of the librarians about whether I could find serious books on anthropology and the history of the Tropic Park area and Lonesome Mountain, and she showed me to the specific section, then said that if Tropic Park didn't have a certain book that I wanted, but another library branch did, they could swap information online, and the book would soon arrive at the Tropic Park branch for my subsequent check out of said novel.
There were only two other patrons of the library that I could see, and I thought that perhaps the Red Tide just meant everyone stayed at home, regardless of how close the grocery store was, or how important the day of the English test. The books that I found were more or less of no help at all. Most contained information on the Cherokee Nation, which lived in Florida and had done so for quite some time. Remembering what Tyris had said about speaking with Cherokee wise man, I took out a few of these books that looked promising. But none of them had any of the information I was trying to find. One of the other people, a young man with long black hair, nudged his way past me on the way to the Large Print Fiction section.
After looking again through the non-fiction section, flipping briefly through the indexes of some for any mention of Ri-Zu or Sih-To, I went to one of the computers to see if I could find a book there. Libraries, no matter, it seems, where they are, whether the city is rich or poor, populated or vacant, all have a computer for use in searching the database for books. And there are only two types of computers, and I imagine that no matter how much technology progresses, these are the only two types of computers that libraries will ever use. As surely as the two types of people who work in the library are the old women who are paid and the young students who volunteer, I have always found one of these two types of computers. The first is older, a throwback to the days when computers couldn't handle graphics of any kind besides alpha-numerics with special symbols, and uses a green on black, fixed-width system for representing the information. The other, invented when programmers figured out how to put color into the system and seemed to have gone mad with the power, uses a horrible pastel scheme of blue background with white letters and pink boxes with gray shadows. The computer I found in the Tropic Park branch of the county public library system was the first kind, and when I sat, the computer was already on, displaying a green box with a list of options that included “Title,” “Author,” “Subject,” “Genre,” and “More.” The first letter of each option was underlined and had a dark green box around it. Instructions at the bottom of the screen told me to press the letter corresponding to the option I wanted to select. I pressed “S,” for subject.
The first screen disappeared line by line, like someone sliding a black sheet of paper over it, and then a small graphic of a someone sitting on a floor looking at a book appeared, rendered particularly well in alpha-numerics with special symbols. I only caught a brief glimpse of the man, and then he disappeared in the same way as the original screen, replaced by a new box with instructions to type the keywords for the subject I wanted to research, with examples, like “Tigers” and “England.” Below this was a green line with a dark green box at the beginning of the line that blinked into and out of existence slowly. I typed in “Language” and pressed the enter key. Again, the screen went black and I saw the man again, although this time he was standing next to a bookshelf pensively, or at least I thought the little “o”s representing his eyes looked pensive. Evidently, this was a waiting screen, as it remained longer than the previous one until the computer had compiled the data on my search. The new screen showed me another box, and in this box was a list of all the books in the county library system that had been marked by the librarian who entered the book in as having some connection to “Language.” It wasn't all the books, actually, just the first ten that came up alphabetically. Instructions at the bottom said to press a number, zero through nine, to receive more information about a certain book, “B” to return to the previous page, “M” for the main menu, “N” for the next ten books on “Language,” or “P” for the previous ten books on “Language.” Most of the results had only the slightest to do with language, judging by their titles, so I pressed “N” and looked through the next batch. There were titles on the development of Castillian Spanish, the use of Shakespearean English, and many others that would be of no use to me. I did find one titled “On the Creation and Ongoing Development of Native American Languages,” but after pressing “3” I found that it was concerned primarily with the Iroquois Nations of the North-East.
I pressed “B” to return to the Subject Input screen. The little man appeared, but just briefly. When the blinking green box and the long line of underscores returned, I typed in “Tropic Park.” The results here were much less in number, and the little man looked at the shelf for only a few seconds before coming back to me with the books I wanted, though the pensive look was gone, replaced by something I thought was, fear, perhaps. But then, it was a picture rendered in slashes and zeros, and I only saw it for a few seconds, so I didn't pay much attention. There was precious little I did want out of that group, though. Seven out of the ten books were tourist attractions, one was a book of maps of Central Florida, another dealt with government of different places in Florida, but one book, number six, stood out as of possible help. It was titled simply “History of Tropic Park, Florida, and the Surrounding Area.” I hit the key for “6” and received the author, publishing information, and a brief description. There was no mention of the indigenous tribes, but I figured that the librarians couldn't fit all the subjects of the book in such a short summary.
I hit “N,” which, in this part, would tell me more about the condition of the book, whether it was on hold, what libraries had it, et cetera. The green characters told me that the book was currently Checked in at the Tropic Park branch, with another in a city further north. On the little desk next to the computer was a stack of green paper with an advertisement for the library's movie night, a month old, and a red pen. I took the pen and a piece of the paper and wrote down the title and author of the book, so I could find it later, after I had finished my searches. I hit “B” and then “B” again, which took me back to the Subject Input screen. This time, I typed “Ri-Zu.” The little man appeared, but he was looking away from the bookshelf. There were no entries. I hit “B” and typed “Sih-To” and gave a short start of horror.
The man was standing by the bookshelves, as previously, but instead of looking at the books, or away from the books, he was looking at me. At least, his head was. His body, standing several spaces away, was turned away from me. The man's eyes, which had been the letter “o” before, had been replaced with “x”s in the comical cartoon style, and his tongue lolled out in the shape of the letter “P.” There were several periods floating above his head that I took to be flies. Then this grisly image disappeared, and row after row of the circles and curves and lines that made up the ancient language appeared, the screen filled entirely with the symbols. Confused, I went to the librarian and told her that the computer had crashed.
“Jeff'ry,” she said in hushed tones to a teenager who was shelving books from a little cart nearby. “Can you help this young man with the computer? He says there's some kind of problem.” The boy sighed, as though it in truth were the last thing he wanted to do, and went with me to the computer. I could understand. I had volunteered for a while in my high school years, and it was a terrible job, something you did to put on your college resume, so you could study and get a better job. The symbols still covered the screen. Jeffery hit the space bar a few times, then the enter key, then control alt delete, but none of that worked.
“What did you do to this?” he said, though from his tone, I didn't think he wanted an answer. He held down the power button on the computer tower, and the green characters condensed into a small circle of bright light and then faded away. He pressed the button again, and the computer began to whir and make clicking noises very rapidly as it came back to life. It ran what I assumed were the normal start-up procedures, and Jeffery made a non-committal noise with his throat and said “There you go” before returning to the cart and putting the books where they belonged. When the computer reached the Main menu again, I typed “S” and then “Sih-To.” The answer came back so quickly that I didn't even see that little man again. “NO ENTRIES MATCHED YOUR QUERY. PLEASE PRESS “B” TO RETURN TO THE PREVIOUS SCREEN.” I pressed “M” and then left the computer where it was.
With the slip of paper in hand, I returned to the non-fiction section and found the book I was looking for. It was a thin paperback, so I wasn't surprised I had missed it. Taking it up to the counter, I asked the librarian if I could check it out, then remembered I had no personal library card with this county. I did, however, have my father's library card, and I presented it to the librarian, who gave me her condolences. Everyone knew my father, it seemed.

Still too early for dinner, I thought about what to do for the rest of the afternoon. McBride's last suggestion, her second to last suggestion, really, came back, and I thought I might check out the statue of Saint Michael. It wasn't hard to find. It was on the side of Lonesome Mountain, not that high up, but you could see it pretty clearly when you had a good view of the mountain. It was large enough that I could make it out from the city, but I couldn't make out any of the salient features. Still, it was fairly obvious which road led up to it. Tropic Park is arranged on a grid of streets, so you can follow one street from the inland waterway straight east all the way to Saint Michael.
It was tall, very tall, probably equal to a three or four story building in height, and made entirely out of white marble. Saint Michael himself was intimidating, with a long broadsword and shield with a spike on it, but his face wore a smile that indicated a certain pleasure, as though he were proud of something he had done. Which was a fair enough thought, because at his foot was the corpse of the dragon he had just slain. I don't know the story of Saint Michael, but that much was clear from the dead scaly thing at his feet. It too was made of white marble, but it was much smaller in scale than Saint Michael. Probably an artistic trick, designed to make Saint Michael all the more grandiose. Saint Michael, in addition to the sword and shield, wore a warrior's kilt and breastplate and high boots. Also, Saint Michael wore a pair of wide angel's wings on his back, spotted with blue dots. The whole statue, both Saint Michael and the dragon, were set on top of a cylindrical building adding another fifty or sixty feet to the height of the monument. Several blue-eyed cherubs, half hidden in fluffy blue clouds, stared down at me with what seemed to be boredom, although the artist had probably originally intended the emotion to be love.
There was an ample parking lot, so I suspected that in the summer and at Christmas, during tourist season, the statue got a fair number of visitors. Today, however, the lot was mostly empty, save for a few cars that I thought carried the people who worked there. There was a low building that had several rooms, each room a small store selling water and snacks. In each store, a bored woman waited for customers to show up, though I would have to disappoint them as I was neither thirsty nor hungry. Instead, I made my way to the statue.
A railing wound its way around Saint Michael's feet, so it seemed that you could climb up the building to stand on it and look out over the city. A young child of perhaps ten was sitting just inside the entrance to the building holding a plastic container and several slips of paper. She held out her hand and said “Twenty-five cents” when I went to move past her. I found a quarter in my pocket and handed it to her. In exchange, she gave me one of the pieces of paper, which had a number One painted on it in red ink.
The whole inside of the tower was given over to a spiral staircase, a cheap metal thing that didn't seem stable. But, after jumping on the first step to test it, I began to climb up. The walls were a dull gray, and every twenty steps or so there was a tiny square window with no glass, only a metal grate over it. There is a lighthouse back in Daytona Beach in Ponce Inlet, and the way the staircase in the statue curved upwards with gaps in between the steps reminded me of it. The staircase ended onto an iron ladder which ascended up onto the underside of the Saint Michael statue. Not daring to look down, I put my feet on the bottom rung and carefully hoisted myself up into the afternoon sunlight.
There wasn't much sunlight at all, really, because the sun set in the west, while the statue was on the side of the mountain that faced to the east. The mountain in fact cast a shadow over the entire city, making it a sickly orange color that clashed with the dark green of the sea. From that spot, I could see out over the entire city, saw everything in almost miniature. It wasn't quite ant-sized, like you see from skyscrapers, but the people and the buildings were very small. The pattern on which the town is laid out, a grid with streets running north-south and east-west, was very visible, interrupted only by the irregular shape of the inland waterway and the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. The inland waterway carried off to the north and to the south as far as I could see. I've heard it said that the horizon is sixteen miles away, or further if you're higher up. Because Florida is flat, save for the one mountain on which I was standing, you can see the horizon in every direction, so long as your view isn't obstructed by trees or the like. With global warming becoming more and more of a problem, there have been studies done showing that if the sea level rises twenty feet, what with the melting ice caps and all that, all of Florida will be underwater. So my father's riverside condo could become oceanside as well in the conceivable future, although by that time, everyone will probably have left already.
But, no matter how high the water level rises, the mountain will always be there, although I imagine that a drastic rise would make it easier to climb, starting off at a higher level. But Saint Michael didn't seem to be concerned by any of that. Looking up at him from below made it harder to make out his expression, but he still smirked in a self-satisfied way. From close up, the dragon seemed more like a fish than a reptile, the head distinctly curved around like a fish, not coming to a snout as I would have expected. The scales stuck out quite a bit, with maybe half an inch of rock from the top of one scale to the top of the next. The dragon didn't seem remotely frightening, in fact, it was curled up at Saint Michael's feet like an obedient dog. Whether that was a purposeful choice or not, I didn't know, but it was getting dark quickly and I didn't feel like trying to navigate my way down the mountain in the dark, so I made my way back down the ladder and the spiral stairs and out the door I had come in. I was going to hand the kid back the slip of paper, but she was gone. As I got in my car, I took one last look at Saint Michael. It seemed like he had turned his head slightly and was watching me out of the corner of his eye. The dragon, too, seemed like it had lifted its head to see me off. But it was probably just a trick of the light, or so I thought at that time.

I have never been accustomed to an empty house. When I was growing up, I had my mother, who was usually in when she was not at work, and a dog, a black Labrador with a bright pink tongue, who was always at home. Here, the apartment is empty, and though it is small, and potential intruders have not much space to hide in, I have a compulsive need to check in every room to make sure that I am truly alone. When I arrived at the condo that night, I preformed the routine as usual. It was easy to see from the entrance that the living room and the kitchen were free of unwanted visitors, and I made my way into the study, listening for the sound of muffled footsteps on the other side of the door. There were none, and the room held only a desk, a chair, and a hole in the wall. Back in the living room, I opened the sliding glass door to look in on the balcony, and was greeted by the sounds of trucks and cars rumbling below in the darkness. I felt vaguely disquieted by the presence of unseen things in the blackness below, but I was not quite sure why.
The street sounds only intensified my fear, because they reminded me that they were far away, while I was up above, cut off from any would be rescuers. Working faster now, I crossed into the bedroom. I had to check under the bed before I was convinced the place was clean. Finally, I pushed open the door into the bathroom.
I have always had a largely irrational fear of the bathroom, stemming from a story my brother told me as a child. The story goes that a young girl is staying at home alone one night while her parents are out of town, and she is very scared because there have been reports on the news of a madman escaped from a mental institution. But she has a nice little dog with her to protect her and keep her company. So she is lying in bed with the lights off and she hears the shower in the bathroom start to make a steady drip, drip, drip, sound. She is very frightened, but she puts her hand under her bed, and her dog licks it, and she feels less scared. This happens a couple more times during the night, but she puts her hand under the bed, the dog licks it, and she feels much calmer, and eventually she falls asleep. In the morning, she wakes up and goes to the bathroom to find out what was making the dripping noise, only to see her dog hanging from the shower head, blood dripping into the tub and a note pinned to its chest, reading “Maniac lives under the bed.” So I have always checked behind the shower curtain to see if there was something or someone hanging there, throat cut and blood drip, drip, dripping on the white porcelain of the tub. The shower was empty, just as I knew and hoped and did not expect it to be. I caught sight of myself in the mirror, and the haggard, bleary-eyed man looking back at me was not the same person who just two weeks ago was looking for a job in the Barnes and Nobles on International Speedway in Daytona Beach. I had not been sleeping well lately, and it showed pretty clearly. Studying my father's work was a time consuming process, and as I poked at the heavy black circles under my eyes, I wondered why I was bothering with it at all. I felt sure in that moment that I would soon run up against a wall, being unable to understand the language and interpret my father's notes. Then a fly buzzed behind me, close to my ear, and I caught sight of it in the mirror just out of the corner of my eye. When I looked, the fly was gone, but when I turned back to the mirror, my sense of unease reached a fever pitch, and after a moment's thought, I realized why.
My reflection in the mirror did not turn away when I did. It stood, silent, watching me. I raised my hand, but the other me did not move. It glared vilely at me. I rubbed my eyes and looked once more at the thing on the other side of the glass, the other me. It leered at me, showing teeth yellow and red. Unable to reconcile what I was seeing and what I knew to be the way these things worked, I placed a hand on the mirror, which felt cold and smooth against my palm. The other me, still grinning wickedly, did the same. A crazed look came into his, or into my?, eyes, and he crashed his head into the other side of the mirror. A thousand hairline cracks shot across the mirror, but my side remained smooth and unblemished. The other me laughed silently, his face cracked into a thousand pieces so the small trickle of blood became a massive delta across his forehead. He leaned back and smashed his head into the mirror again. This time, a large piece of glass fell out of the frame into the sink on the other side. With a steady hand, the other me took the piece of glass and ran the flat side tenderly across his cheek, so the reflective side was facing me. I saw my face, my true, whole reflection in it, eyes wide with fright, before the blood now pouring from the other me's forehead obscured it. He threw back his head, and I thought he was going to make another attempt on the mirror, but he just laughed. Or perhaps it was a scream, I could not tell. Some of his blood dripped into his mouth, and he spat it out onto the shattered mirror, leaving bright red lines running down the mirror and collecting into cracks.
The other me, now positively howling, moved the glass shard from his face to his wrist, where he moved it back and forth in a sawing motion. Blood began to well up around the cut, and all the while his face smirked insanely at me, his glee barely concealed. I think I fainted, because the next moment, I was lying on the floor, the back of my head throbbing terrible where I had struck it on the toilet seat on the way down. I felt the tender area gingerly, but there did not seem to be any blood. I stumbled to my feet, swaying ever so slightly, and my vision dimmed for a moment as the blood inside me circulated throughout very rapidly. My mirror was as it had always been, and the other me was clutching his head in pain as well. I fell into my bed without eating dinner, or even undressing, and was soon asleep.
I did not sleep long, for momentarily, the sound of the telephone woke me, a melodic series of beeps and whistles that was high and disconcerting in the silence of the vacant apartment. After realizing fully where I was, I disentangled myself from the sheets and wandered into the kitchen, taking the long way through the living room and the front hall to get there. I gave a sleepy “Hello?” into the phone before realizing it was still ringing. I pushed Talk.
“Thomas? Are you there?” It was my mother. I checked the time. It was nearly eleven o'clock.
“Yeah. Hey, mom. Why are you calling me so late?”
“I'm sorry. Were you asleep?”
“Yes, I was. But it's all right. Don't worry about it.”
“No, no. You need your sleep. Go back to bed. I'll call you in the morning, after you've had some breakfast.”
“I'm already up, mom. What did you want to talk to me about? Is everything all right at home?”
“Yes, everything is fine here. I was just wondering when you were planning on coming home. You haven't called me even once since you got to Tropic Park, and I miss you. The dog misses you. There's no one for me to order to wash the dishes or clean the living room, because the dog won't listen to me.”
“That's a shame, Mom. You're going to have to get used to that, though. You did it while I was away at college. You know I'm not going to stay at home forever. I have to leave sometime, spread my wings, all that stuff.”
“That's why I'm trying to get all the use out of you that I can while you are still around.” She sighed. “Anyway, you never answered my question. When exactly are you coming home? Jackson can't have had that interesting a life for you to stay down there this long.”
“I haven't decided when I'm coming back yet. I'm studying some of the work dad was doing here. Apparently, the two tribes that used to live here three thousand years ago had a system of writing that has been completely univestigated by anyone. There are no paper documents of it surviving, if there ever were any to begin with, but Dad found some examples of the writing in caves on Lonesome Mountain, apparently, and he left behind a giant stack of papers full of symbols that no one else can read now that he's gone. So I've been going around to different people and trying to find out what it all means. It's amazing stuff, Mom, and I think I'm going to stay here until I get it figured out.”
“You're just like your father, always looking at the unexplained bits of history, trying to puzzle them out. You should have heard him giving the various theories on how the Egyptians built the pyramids. He always got upset when people suggested that it was really aliens who built them. He said that was just an easy way out for people who didn't want to do any real archaeological work.” There was a brief period of silence, and then she said, wistfully, “I loved your father very much, you know. We met in college, at the University of Florida. He was studying anthropology, and I was in Biology Pre-Med. He was always very into his work, you know, always the one who would be working on his essay on the tool making techniques of the aboriginal people in Australia at three o'clock in the morning, when the paper wasn't due for a week. I had to drag him out to parties or he wouldn't have gone at all. I see that in you of your father, the way you latch onto an idea and won't let it go, going without food, sleep, showers, for as long as it takes to get the job done. Like that time in high school when you were trying to figure out three-dimensional Calculus, and I had to reheat your lunch for your breakfast, because when I reheated what you skipped for lunch, you didn't eat that either. But speaking of eating, have you had dinner yet?”
“Well, I was going to eat dinner, but then this really weird thing happened to me, and I kind of went to bed.”
“Make yourself a sandwich right now. And I can hear what you're doing over the phone, so I'll know if your doing it or not.” I grudgingly took out a plate and some bread and began making myself a turkey sandwich. “I remember times, right after you were born, when your father would be working when I went to bed, and when I got up, he'd be bouncing you on his knee, telling you stories about some time long ago, when brave fishermen took to the seas. He loved to wax poetic about the days gone by. He should have been a write. You probably don't remember, but he used to love telling you some of the most fantastic stories about people he made up, Glog the Hunter, Orduk the Potter... I loved him very much. But I didn't love that city. We got married right out of college, and we went right to Tropic Park. My family is all in Ormond Beach, you know, but back then, your uncle Rich and his family was here, and my grandparents, and I was just glad to be away from all of them. But I never really got used to the city. I don't know why, something about the way the mountain casts a shadow over the city in the evening, and the way it lurks in the distance at night, blotting out the stars like some giant monster. I couldn't live there, but your father flat out refused to live anywhere else. That place attracted him like it repulsed me, and we decided to divorce over it. It seems like a silly argument, I know, but I don't think you feel it like I did, or you'd be back here already. I was worried that you'd fall in love with the place like your father did, but someone had to go down and deal with his belongings and everything he left behind.”
“Mom, I haven't fallen in love with anything or anyone. As soon as I finish looking into Dad's work, I'll be back in Ormond Beach.”
“I wish... Okay, okay. Just come back soon. I miss you, you know. The dog's been whining for you, going into your room and looking around like, 'Where's Thomas? Where's Thomas?' We want you home again.”
“Can't you understand, mom? I never knew Dad. Being here, it's like I can get to know him for the first time. I can talk to the people he talked to, go to the places he went to, learn what he learned, see what he saw! It's wonderful.”
“That's fine, Thomas, but just remember, you are not your father. Don't lose yourself in what you're doing.”
“Mom! Please, I'm going to be fine! Stop worrying.”
“I'm not worrying.” But in my mind, I could see her, sitting at the kitchen table miles and miles away, back home, I thought, squeezing and releasing and old dishrag she had picked up out of the sink. It was a habit she'd had for as long as I could remember. When she worried, she would pick up anything soft, a pillow, a blanket, my hair, when I had been younger and worn it long, and run through her hands, weaving it around her fingers. In those days, she would eventually throw down whatever she was holding and begin pacing, muttering to herself, until finally she would explode into a rage of words that burst out before she could stop them. I wasn't sure exactly how my mother of today would act, having only seen her anxious just once in her new state. “It's just, I know what happened to Sarah, Tom, and I know you must have been thinking about it. And I don't want that to upset you or affect how you are.”
In fact, I hadn't been thinking about it. I had come close, a couple of times when I thought about her, but now I had no other choice. I caught hold of the offending memory, wrapped it, stamped it, sent it to the part of my mind I send the things I want to forget to. I can't forget them, I'm too good for that, but at least I forget them for a while. Then, with a voice that I didn't think hid the way I felt, I said “Don't worry so much, Mom. Now, I've got a perfectly good turkey sandwich just sitting here, begging to be eaten. So I'll talk to you later. I love you, Mom. I'll come back home soon, okay?”
“All right, sweetie. I'm sorry about the way things turned out between you two. About some of the things I said. I just want what any mother wants, what's best for her child.” At these words, it was my turn to feel like raging and shouting. But this was not a conversation to be having on the phone, so I only listened as she said, “I love you too,” and was glad to find that it was true.
After eating, I went to bed, hoping that this time, I would be asleep for a decent amount of time. Instead, I lay awake, thinking about Sarah. When we were just out of college, she had come to visit me in Ormond Beach to tell me she was pregnant. At first I was happy, hysterically happy, but the more I thought about it, the more worried I became. I wondered how I could support a family, as I had no job, no savings, no home of my own, even. I told my mother about it, asked for her help and advice, but she began yelling at Sarah, calling her, among other things, a “slut” and a “prostitute.” It was then that I spoke up against my mother, something I had never done before and have never done since, to tell her that Sarah and I were engaged, and that I would not have her speak to my future wife like that. Sarah and I were not engaged, but I had to say something, and I wasn't sure what else to do. Sarah said she needed time to think, and went back to Tropic Park, where she was killed in a car accident. Life's a bitch, and then you die.
I rolled over and closed my eyes, hoping I could get some wholesome sleep. It was not to be. I could not have had my eyes closed for more than a few minutes before I heard footsteps in the living room. I opened my eyes and turned the light on. There were definitely footsteps coming from just outside my door. Unsure of exactly what to do in this situation, I tried to find my cell phone before remembering I had left it on the kitchen counter next to my keys. I put my ear up to the connecting door between my room and the living room and heard as the intruder opened and closed the sliding door out onto the balcony. Slowly, ever so slowly, I opened the door and peeked out into the living room and onto the balcony. There was no one there. I went all the way out of the bedroom to look in the kitchen, which was also empty of people. My cell phone was there, on the counter where I had left it, but if I was just imagining things, there was no need for it. I turned back to check the living room one last time.
There was a man standing on the balcony with his face pressed against the glass. Though I could only just make out his features from the electric light over the stove that I always leave on, there was something familiar about the way his nose tilted slightly up, and the thin, pale lips and the short black hair, some inexplicable similarity to my own face that took several moments for me to realize that the man now knocking his hand weakly against the window was my own father.
“Thomas,” he said, his voice high and reedy and barely audible through the glass. “Let me in, Thomas. It's so cold out here.”
It is strong evidence to the conjecture that this whole sequence was a dream that I did not scream, or question the presence of a man supposed to be dead standing just outside my apartment and asking to enter. But I do not believe this was a dream, or rather, I have no reason to disbelieve that this was my conscious, waking life.
“Thomas,” my father repeated. “Thomas, let me in.”
As I approached the balcony, I saw that he was soaking wet, his hand leaving watery smudges as he banged it on the window and his clothes dripping a small puddle onto the ground. His skin was gray and wrinkled, not fitting him exactly. And his eyes! Looking at his eyes made the skin on my scalp tighten and my back crawled with horror, for his eyes were three times the normal size, with the white part perfectly blank and the pupil and iris perfectly black.
“Please let me in,” he begged. I opened the door and he stepped in, shaking himself vigorously like a wet dog and holding out his arms to embrace me. I stood with my arms at my sides as he hugged me. He felt squishy, like the flesh on his bones had bloated out too far and would burst if I returned the hug, and he smelled like salt. A fly buzzed past my ear, landed on his shoulder, and began cleaning itself right in front of my face. My father did not seem to notice.
All at once, he coughed violently, a great hacking wheeze that seemed to come from his stomach rather than his throat, and he let go of me. He ran to the kitchen and pulled a large metal bowl out from one of the floor-level cabinets and, seizing the pages of his notes off the table and putting them into the bowl, began to vomit wildly. Green, foamy water began to spill into the bowl and the odor of brine and fish and slimy things that dwell in the dark and cold of the ocean filled the room. He stopped abruptly, gave another cough, and picked up the bowl, holding it out to me. “Drink,” he said. He looked dead into my eyes, and I saw my own face reflected in those too dark too large too inhuman pupils.
And I was in front of him, staring into the bowl, where the waters were now a murky red. Jackson pulled the papers out from the bottom, and I saw that the ink had washed off into the water, along with the brown substance that I now suspected strongly of being blood. We both looked at the water in the bowl, and I saw his face and my face and they were one and the same face with no trace of the differences in me that came from my mother. Jackson took my chin in one puffy hand, his skin ice cold, and pulled my gaze up to meet his.
“Drink, and know.”
I lifted the bowl to my mouth, and let the hot liquid flow into me. And as I was drinking, Jackson began to chant, a string of syllables issuing from his mouth so rapidly that I could not discern one sound from the next. And as the bowl tilted higher and higher and more and more of that liquid disappeared into me, I felt tears, hot and salty, trickle down my cheeks and into my mouth, where I could not tell them apart from the briny potion. And as the last of the noxious solution was drunk, I felt my arms grow heavy. I put the bowl down and let my hands fall to my sides, but they swung wildly and I shifted from foot to foot trying to regain my balance. But my vision was starting to go, the bright yellow of the paint in the kitchen dimming and falling away, and then the softer colors, the gray of Jackson's flesh and the silver of the metal bowl gone now too. My hearing was slipping in and out, so that the chanting was at once quiet quiet quiet and then loud and painful, and then gone altogether. And then I was falling inside myself, my mental center dropping away from my eyes into the core of my very being, and I watched the hazy circles of my eyes receding farther and father into the distance, like I had been pushed into a very tall, very dark tower and the only windows to the outside world were further and further from me and I dropped. I rubbed my eyes, trying to return to myself, but the touch of my hands was high up and far away, and I did not notice it after a few moments. And then the circles of light that were my eyes were so far away that they diminished to nothing and I was falling blindly in the dark. Around me in that blackened pitch I could sense the presence of great and terrible entities, gibbering powerfully, so that I felt the vibrations of their Cyclopean movements resonate through my body. A chill, a chill as though I had been submerged in arctic waters, a chill like the breath of a dead man, pervaded me, and the blackness around me began to undulate, rippling and curving in a mad and impossible manner. The palpitations grew to a fever pitch, and I thought I could sense patterns, black shapes moving in the blackness and all the time growing nearer and nearer. And then there was a sensation not of falling, but of rising, of some intangible force, like magnetism, drawing me upward with incredible speed. The gargantuan things lurched down below and soon faded away. And then I could see colors again, bright colors at first, like the green down below, registering as gray on my mind, and then soft colors reoriented themselves, and then I caught the sound of cars, and of the wind whistling in my ears, and I finally regained the use of all five of my senses to find that I was standing on the railing of the balcony, staring at a ten story drop to the river below.
Quite surprised, I nearly lost my balance and toppled forward, but I pinwheeled backwards and fell hard against the sliding door back into my apartment, cracking my head sharply and making the glass rattle in its frame. The sun was just beginning to rise up over the horizon, so that my side of the building was in shadow, but the peak of the mountain in the distance was just beginning to sparkle in the light, the snow reflecting. Dazed, I staggered to my feet and clumsily made my way back inside. There was no trace of Jackson, or the metal bowl, or the strange red potion. The carpet was dry, and the only salt on me was from my own sweat. The pages of Jackson's notes were still on the table where I had left them, still complete with the strange writing but now missing the blood stains, for which I was thankful. No evidence remained of the ghostly nocturnal visit of Jackson the night before.

V. Discovery of the Language,
or Speaking in Verse

I decided that day to take some time to visit one of the caves whose messages had so captivated Jackson. I asked around in the market for a while, but no one would tell me anything. The indigenous people would be friendly enough, trying to exchange potatoes, or blackberries, but when I mentioned the caves, with the writing, each and every one stopped talking to me. Finally, I decided that I would just take one of the roads up to the mountain and poke around until I found one of the caves. I left, glad to be quit of that market. Wherever I had gone through the low-ceilinged labyrinth, I had felt the pressure of dozens of eyes staring at me, but whenever I tried to find my watchers, no one was even so much as looking in my direction.
I drove my car as far as I could, but the city was installing a sewer system leading to some of the more remote houses on the mountain, and had dug up several rows of earth to install the pipes. I was obliged to leave my car on the side of the road and travel the rest of the way on foot. The crops were already sown for this season, and already the sprouts had started to come up, long lines of green amidst mounds of dirt. I thought they might be potatoes, but I was not sure. There were cows in some of the fields, brutish animals with long horns and large eyes, who watched me dolefully as I trudged up the dirt path, which had now narrowed so much that my car would have been of no use anyway.
The mountain loomed above me, growing larger as I walked further on. Clouds obscured the peak and much of the upper half, like a white veil placed over the head of the mountain. In the deep folds, where two ridges were set close together, trees had collected, growing upwards away from the forest like it was sending questing tendrils towards the sky. The heat was stifling, and I took a long drink from my water bottle. The path was at a greater angle than before, and I was tiring out.
Every once in a while, I would pass a stone hut with a thatched roof that held grain for the animals, or a larger house serving as living quarters for the farmers of that plot of land, but I never saw another person along that stretch of road. No one taking crops to market, no one planting or harvesting, no one pulling up weeds or laying down fertilizer. I felt isolated, like I could scream, and no one would heard me. It was a depressing thought, and as I walked further, the feeling of aloneness grew, until I began to recite poetry to occupy my thoughts. It provided a strong rhythm, and I unconsciously walked to the tempo.

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly, there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, 'tapping at my chamber door.'”

“This it is and nothing more.” I wheeled around and saw behind me a man, an indigenous man, about fifty-five, or sixty, his skin leathery and wrinkled from years under the mountainous sun. His hair was gray, and hung down in long strings from under his hat, an old brown fedora with a black band around it. He wore a cloth over his clothes, in the style of the indigenous people, and walked with a bend in his back.
“This it is and nothing more,” I repeated, finishing the last line of the poem. “Who are you?”
“I look inside myself and find
Identity, so fracture-lined
I think there is no way to bind
The pieces of my broken mind.”
“I was really looking for a name, of some kind.”
“ 'So what's a name?' he said to me,
'A mountain or a shining sea?'
'A rocky peak,' I said to him,
'Or basin filled to golden brim?' ” He smiled at me, and I thought perhaps he had gone mad.
“Can you tell me if this is the right way? I'm trying to get to one of the caves on the mountain, one of the ones that's below the forest, and I don't really know if I'm on the right path or not.”
“A living cave is writ in stones,
Its darkest depths will hold the bones
Of all of those who seek to try
To pass that way and never die.” He continued smiling.
“Never mind.” I started walking up again, but I turned around when I realized the man was still following me. “What do you want?”
“What I want and what I need
Are two different things indeed,
For what I need will always be hid,
And of what I want, I'll never be rid.”
“Why do you keep talking like that?” He had no poem to respond, but just dipped his head in agreement and kept smiling, his teeth crooked and yellow. “Look, I'm trying to get up this mountain, so, if that's the way you're headed, I guess you can come along. Not much I can do to stop you.”
“'Just come along with me, my friend,'
Said Rabbit to the Hare,
Not knowing that by the day's end,
They'd both be skinned and bare.”
“That's really starting to creep me out. Would you mind not doing that?” He dropped his head and gave a slight bow, spreading his arms out and stepping back with one leg in a mock curtsy. “Thanks.”
We set off, and after several minutes, I wondered how my new friend was keeping a brisk pace in the straw sandals he wore. I offered him water, but he shook his head. And he always wore that smile! If anyone else had kept smiling for that long, I would have thought he was smirking at me. But this man seemed so earnest, and the smile reached every part of his face, in his cheeks, his eyes, in a way that it does not when you try to fake it.
After a few more minutes of climbing, he began to wax poetic again.
“I read in books, so long ago,
Of things I thought that I should know,
But when I reached those lofty spires,
I found that they were writ by liars.”
“What are you trying to tell me, that I should stop believing what I read?”
“I sought to travel to the sky,
It was my wish that I should fly.
But when I looked from icy height,
I thought that I would die of fright.”
“You're a bit of a downer, you know? Do you know any happier verses?”
“I ate a spider, swallowed it whole.
Inside of me, it birthed a foal.
Then, on my blood and flesh, it nursed.
It grew and grew until I burst.”
“I'll take that as a no.”
“Lo que yo mas deseo,
Es vivir sin lo que creo.
Traté de hacerlo, una vez,
Y casi mor√≠ de madurez.”
“And now we've gone on to Spanish. Wonderful.” The old man seemed tireless, but I had to stop for a short break. I thought, hoped, really, that he would continue on without me, but he stood just below me on the path, watching and grinning at me. “Hey, here's a poem for you,” I said.
“I hate the dust,
It makes me cough,
Now why don't you,
Go Fuck Off.”
He kept smiling, and I shook my head in disgust.

At about twelve o'clock, we reached a cave. It was small, just barely big enough for me to fit through bent over. The entrance was slanted with the path, which continued its meandering way up the mountain for about one hundred feet before disappearing into the forest. With the sun now directly overhead, it was too dark to see very far inside the cave, but it looked like the passage widened out into a larger cavern a little ways in.
“Hey, are you going in there with me?” I asked him.
“I told myself, 'When we arrive,
It will be time to say goodbye,'
For with you here, I'm still alive,
But with you gone, I die.”
I crouched down and stepped into the cave. “Is that a yes or a no?” I called back. There was no answer. I turned my head back to look for him, and he was just standing at the mouth of the cave, watching me go further in. “I guess that's a no.” But then he spoke once more.
“Think more than once about your path.
Better to live than face the wrath
Of that which lurks inside the cave
And waits to feast on souls so brave.”
At his words, I took out a flashlight and shone it into the dark ceiling of the room, expecting a sudden flurry of bats, like you often seen in movies. But there was no glitter of malevolent eyes, no whirring of wings, and I stepped out fully into the open space, where I was able to stand up. The mouth of the cave, a lone circle of light, was far behind me now.
Moving close to the wall of the cave, I shone the light on the stone, and saw that it was absolutely covered in the symbols Jackson had been studying, written in a bright red ink which I thought must have come from berries. Blood would have turned brown long before. And they were in miniature, such that there must have been thousands, tens of thousands, of words in that long dead language. Swinging the flashlight around the room, I saw that all the walls were blanketed in the writing, and the roof and the floor. I began to spin wildly, taking in all of it, and in the middle of my revolution, I saw that the mouth of the cave was gone.
So surprised was I that I dropped the flashlight, which hit the ground with a resounding crack that echoed in a distorted fashion in the enclosed space. It went out, and I was engulfed in the darkness. Terrified, I dropped to the ground and began to crawl around the edges of the room, searching for the exit. I could find none. A dim glow filled the room. Light emanated from the lines drawn on the cave walls, as though they were cracks to the world outside, a world filled with red light which was growing brighter all the time, covering me and burning at my flesh. I screamed, and the sound echoed, growing stronger with each reverberation, returning to me a thousand times greater than what I had uttered. Beneath the scream, which was now so alien to my own voice I would not have recognized had I not known I made it, there lay a voice, a child's voice, singing. In my terror, I could still hear the words, or rather, the syllables, because, though I knew what syllables they were, they did not make any sense when strung together. The light intensified, and the singing and the screaming reached a fever-pitch, and suddenly, I knew!
“Why so sad,
Brave little Bird?
Why so mad,
Haven't you heard?
You're the greatest Bird in the land,
Everyone thinks that you are just grand.
You'll chirp and you'll sing,
You're a wonderful thing!
So why so sad,
Brave little Bird.”
It was still nonsense, but it was nonsense in a tongue I understood. But as she, I was sure it was a little girl, continued her song, which extended to other animals, it became clear that the language had not changed, but rather I had. I knew what the words were. I even found myself thinking in the language.
“Why so confused,
Sweet little Doggy?
Why so bemused?
You must feel so groggy!
Your eyes are so sleepy,
And your face looks so weepy.
You're under the weather,
Cheer up, it'll be better!
So why so confused,
Sweet little Dog.”
The light was at such a level that it spilled out from around the pictures, a white light with a red rim that came from everywhere and everything at once. It spilled out of the pores in my skin, and I imagine from my mouth and ears and eyes as well.
“Why so upset,
Bright little Man?”
On the last word, “Man”, the voice rose several octaves and then died away into a whispering cough. Now there was just my scream.
I opened my eyes. The man was standing over me, casting a shadow on my face. I sat up and blinked in the bright sun. There was a soft buzzing of flies and mosquitoes nearby, and I saw the line of trees far above me where the forest began. The cave was gone. I had fallen asleep when I stopped to take a rest, and dreamed the whole thing. Not far overhead, clouds were gathering around the mountain like iron filings to a magnet. They were a dark gray, and threatened an early rainstorm. I remembered what Ipsies had said about the winter, and the rapid formation of squalls out of nowhere.
“Once I laid me down to sleep
And never once I thought to keep
The secrets, all so wide and deep,
Hidden on my piled heap.”
“Glad to see you haven't changed. Let's come back tomorrow. I need some lunch.” I started to slide my way down the mountain.
“Why so hurried,
Quick little Man?”
I was not quite sure what to say. As we went further down, the mountain began to level out, so that soon it was more of a walk than a controlled fall. The clouds, which I had been worried about for some time, finally let loose upon us a cold rain that fell sporadically, intermingled with strong gusts of wind that only made being wet that much colder. The sole of my right shoe was peeling away from the rest of the shoe, and water creeped in through the thin layer of material and soon my sock was wet as well, and I made squelching noises with every other step.
At one point, the wind was so bad that the two of us had to take shelter in on of the feed barns along the road. We crouched down, not wanting to sit on the ground, which was wet from rain blown in through the doorway, and waited for the worst of the storm to pass. The water falling on the thatched roof was soft, not like listening to a storm in a home with a hard roof, and the smell of wet hay was in the air. I felt a little drowsy, but with the strange dreams I had been having, I hummed to myself in order to stay awake. The tune McBride had sung for me was still in my head, and my nameless companion, evidently feeling the need to sing in lieu of doing anything else, picked it up. It was the same song, with the same words and tune, but when he sung it, it seemed different from the way I remembered it, and uncountable years older.
By the time he finished, the rain had died down to a soft patter, but the place was very comfortable, and even after my long nap on the mountain earlier in the day, I felt like a short rest would do me good. I was still sitting on the hay when the woman from the market, the one who had known my father, came in. “Hello,” I said amiably. “I hope you don't mind my sitting here. I was just taking shelter from the storm.”
All at once, the woman became anxious, her hands shook visibly. “Where have you been? Where did you go?”
“My friend and I went up to one of the caves. Well, we tried to go up to the caves, but I fell asleep, and then it started raining, and so we had to come back.”
“You went to one of the caves, didn't you?” Now her whole body was shaking, and it looked like she was about to scream.
“No. Well, I dreamed I went to the caves, but it was just a dream. Nothing to it.”
“Oh, no.” She put one and on the wall and slowly sank to her knees. “Oh, no. It's happening again, just like before. I thought I had warned you about this. I thought you would listen to me. I thought things might be different, but no. I was wrong. It's too late for you.”
“What's going on? What do you mean, 'just like before?' Why is it too late for me?”
“Everything in Tropic Park operates in two. The Mountain and the Ocean, the city and the village, the past and the present, the Ri-Zus and the Sih-Tos, the father and the son, vowels and consonants, written language and spoken language, it is a binary center of existence. But all are the same, from the same root with the same end. Your father found one of the caves too, and it gave him knowledge he should not have had, knowledge of one thing, and so he tried to find knowledge of the other. But it drove him to madness. I can see it happening in you, with the same root and the same end. You were destined to come here, to carry on your father's work, to die like him.”
“Wait, I'm not going to drown or anything. And I chose to come here, it wasn't destiny.”
“Everyone born here who leaves Tropic Park comes back, and anyone who comes to Tropic Park from away cannot stay. It deals in twos, attracts and repulses with the same force, two sides of a coin, a one and a zero. But all are the same.”
“You're crazy,” I wanted to say, but something in her words reminded me of what my mother had said, about the way something about the city made her want to leave, but that my father was to in love with the city to go anywhere else. So, instead, I said, “What knowledge did my father gain? What do you see in me that you saw in him?”
“When you went to the cave, you found the writing and saw a red light that penetrated everything.” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Yeah, but that was just a dream.”
“In that cave, you learned a language that was not your own. It does not belong to you, and using it will only bring you pain and suffering. Your father knew of it, and now he is dead. You will climb to the peak of the Mountain. You no longer have any choice in the matter. But I will give you advice, the same advice I gave to your father, though he chose to ignore it. The Amulet of Protection, the black stone necklace with the red gem center, you have seen it, yes?” I nodded. “You will need it to protect you from the Mountain. If you hope to survive your time here in Tropic Park, the Amulet is your only hope. I know he gave it to the Tropic Park Museum of Antiquities, but you must get it back. Am I making myself clear?”
“I get what you're saying about the necklace, but I don't understand what you mean. I haven't learned a new language, and I definitely don't intend to climb Lonesome Mountain.”
“You will understand in time. I will leave you now. But when you return to the Mountain, do not take the path through the village of my people. You have gone from one path to another, and now your life is a cursed one. Do not bring your evil onto my people.”
“Hey, what is this? You say you're going to help me and then you call me evil, cursed?” But she was out the door, and when I went outside after her, she was nowhere to be seen.

Cold, wet, and tired, I made my way up the stairs to the tenth floor of Oceanside Paradise. I squelched my way to Jackson's apartment, leaving a trail of muddy footprints behind. Ipsies was not going to be happy. At my door, I saw Holly McBride again, just going into her apartment. “Oh, hello, Holly. Just wanted to tell you, I took your suggestion, well, all of them, and I had a pretty good time. Thanks.”
She stared at me, as though she hadn't understood what I said. “What? What did you say?”
“Hello?”
Now she laughed, sheepishly. “It sounded like you just said, 'Hello.'”
“Yeah, that's what I said. What's the problem?”
“Are you okay?”
“Holly, I'm fine. What's going on?”
Now she backed up, into her door, which was still closed. “You're scaring me, Thomas. Why are you talking like that?”
“Talking like what? What are you talking about?”
“This is exactly like what happened with Jackson, you come home, start spouting nonsense at me, I'm not going to deal with this again. Come talk to me when you feel like making sense.” She fumbled with her keys, found the right one, and went into her condo. I stood outside mine, dumbly waiting for her to come back and explain. And then I understood. The fruit vendor woman told me that I learned a language that was not my own. It was the language of the caves, of the Sih-Tos so long ago, that I was speaking.
“I am Thomas Reed,” I said, but it didn't come out like that. Now that I was really paying attention to the words I spoke, it sounded like “Goo day low toe mahs ree doo yik.” But I knew that those syllables meant “I am Thomas Reed,” in the same way I knew what the girl singing in my dream was saying. This was connected, somehow, to my dream on the mountain, and my dream of the previous night with Jackson. “I am Thomas Reed!” But it had the same result, “Goo day low toe mahs ree doo yik” spilled from my mouth again. Something about the cave and the red light and the singing had rewired my brain, so I understood English and the ancient language, but could not distinguish between the two without purposeful attention. And I couldn't speak English at all.
I was about to be scared, when I realized the implications of my newfound knowledge. If I could speak the language, then perhaps I could read it too, and inside, I had pages and pages of Jackson's notes written in that language, and now I could understand them! I rushed inside, not even bothering to close the door behind me, and went to the study, where I had put the notes on the desk that morning. I picked up the first page, and the symbols were still on them. I had thought that they might rearrange themselves into Roman letters, and English words, but nothing. Still, I watched the pages, waiting for the message within to be made clear to me. Nothing.
Another of the fruit woman's phrases came back to me. “Your father found one of the caves too, and it gave him knowledge he should not have had, knowledge of one thing, and so he tried to find knowledge of the other.” So Jackson had learned to speak the language, just as I had, but that alone does not connect to the written language. It was the other side of the same coin. And he went looking for the written language, climbed to the peak trying to find that language. And it was clear to me what I had to do, I had to go to the peak to find that stone tablet that Tyris had told me about, the one that would let me translate the language, learn how to speak it.
But I remembered what had happened to Jackson, how he had tried exactly what I wanted to do, and been driven insane by it. There was something on that mountain, that much I knew. I had seen too many things, strange, inexplicable things, to believe otherwise. But I also knew that there was an item that would let me go all the way to the peak unharmed. The amulet, now resting in a glass display case in the Tropic Park Museum of Antiquities. I needed it, and I was going to get it.

VI. Climbing the Mountain,
or The Sign of the Cursed One

NOTE: The Amulet of Protection which Thomas Reed refers to in this part of his narrative disappeared from the Tropic Park Museum of Antiquities on the morning of November Fifth, which coincides with the time when Reed went from not having the amulet to having it. There is no mention of his stealing the amulet made in the narrative, nor was the amulet found in Reed's apartment or car after a search was conducted following his death. It is assumed that Reed took the amulet with him on his trip up Lonesome Mountain, and lost it somewhere up there. It has still not been recovered.

The mountain stood tall above me, waiting. The ground had been sloping upward for some time now, but here the angle increased dramatically. The road ahead became far too rocky and uneven to continue my journey by car, so I left it parked on the shoulder and continued my journey on foot, much as I had done before when I came to find one of the caves. The first leg of my journey went much as it had that time, except that in front of the few houses I passed always stood a small group of children, watching. When they saw me, the youngest child would run inside and bring out their parents, who made a strange sign with their hands. With a closed fist, they drew the back of their thumb across their forehead. When I waved to them, they shuddered and made the sign again. None of them spoke to me. After the first few, I stopped waving.
Up ahead, I saw the little town I had heard about, and made fore a store where I hoped to buy water. It was still early in the morning, so I was unsure whether it would be open or not, but as it turned out, I had no reason to worry. It seemed to me that every single person in the entire village was awake. There were lights burning in every house, and shadowy figures moved past the windows. I could feel again that heavy weight of people watching me, and as I walked down the narrow road that went straight through the place, I knew people were making the strange sign with their fists. The shop, a one room store crammed in between two small houses on either side, was indeed open. When stores are closed in Tropic Park and the surrounding area, the owner pulls down metal shutters over the windows and the door, and those were definitely left up. In stores like this one, the doorway is covered in an iron grille with a space to allow for the exchange of goods and money, and it was on this that I now knocked when I saw no one in the shop. There was no answer, but no one in Tropic Park leaves their shop untended and open. “Hello?” I called out, and as my voice echoed weirdly around the silent town, I felt even more uneasy. I called out again, softer this time, but there was still no answer. I heard muffled movements in the back room behind the shop, and then it was quiet again. There were a few bottles of water on display on the counter, and so I said, “I'm just going to take a few of these bottles with me. I'll leave some money here on the counter, okay?” I took out my wallet and fished out a few dollar bills, then continued through the village, slipping the water into my backpack as I went.
Just as I was nearing the edge of the village, a door sprung open and I heard a hushed whisper telling me to come inside. A face poked around the edge of the door frame, and I saw the same woman who had sold me the strawberries what seemed like a lifetime ago. Once inside, she gestured for me to take a seat in the wooden chair she had set up against the wall. I began to inquire as to the purpose of the clandestine meeting, but she said, “Hush. Don't speak. Don't even open your mouth. Now take a seat.” I sat. She did so as well, in a chair opposite me on the other wall. “Do you have the amulet?” I nodded. “Good. When you are on the mountain, do not take the amulet off for any reason whatsoever. It is the only thing protecting you.”
“Protecting me from what?”
“Be quiet!” she hissed, more worried than angry. She looked around her in fear and made the strange sign with her hand. “I told you not to come here. I told you not to upset my people.
“I needed to stop by the store, and none of the ones in Tropic Park were-”
“Shut up! I will tell you about the same path I told to your father. I hope this time it will serve you better. With the amulet, I have higher hopes that you will return from this trip alive and whole. Still, if there were any way to convince you that trying to climb to the peak of the mountain is folly, I would try. But I knew your father, and so I let you go. Do not continue to take the path that goes through this village. Once you reach the tree line, turn to the right and walk a quarter mile around. You will come to another path. This one will take you straight through the forest. At least, as straight as any of the other paths. Once you come out from under the cover of the trees, all paths end, and you will have to make your way up as best you can from there. It is a cold, hard course you have chosen for yourself, Thomas Reed, and I pity you. Now get out, before you subject me and my people any further to your cursed existence.”
“Thank you.”
“I do this not for you. You mean less than nothing to me. In fact, I almost wish you were dead, so I did not have to deal with you now that you have cursed yourself. But I knew your father, and I respected him more than any of the other city people I have ever met, and he would not have wanted you to die.”
I left, trembling at the force of her words, and made my way out of the town, taking care to walk as quickly and silently as possible. Once I had passed the last house, there were no more buildings or people. The fields looked more wild and uncultivated than those further below, and rather than the oppressive sense of constant surveillance I had suffered before, now I felt complete isolation, as though I could scream for ages, and no one would hear or come to my aid. Loneliness broke over me like a wave, and I came very close right then to turning an abrupt about face and marching straight back to my car. But the thought of face all the accusing glares of the Ri-Zus was more than I could take, and I held more course, continuing until I reached the forest.
It was a green and brown mass that stank of decaying organic matter. After the heavy rain of the night before, I felt fairly certain that the paths through would be muddy and dreadful to pass through. My current road carried on through, but I heeded the advice from earlier, and instead struck off toward the north, a rounding course that made me pick my way carefully through the bright green shoots now making their way up through the freshly plowed ground. The smell of the new earth laid bare hung in the misty atmosphere, and as I walked, I could see the city laid out beneath me, its carefully gridded streets hurrying this way and that, the few people on them at this early hour in no less of a rush. I could see the river lazily swinging around from behind the mountain to cut through the center of Tropic Park until it reached the inland waterway. From my high vantage point, the islands seemed like stones dropped in a puddle, but there was no height great enough to diminish the sea, which glittered in the sunrise's light the flaming orb turning the whitecaps of the surf a bright red. Perhaps my mother was right, and I had fallen in love with the city, for I remember giving a brief sigh and thinking that I would never see a sight so beautiful again in all my life as the sun rising over Tropic Park as seen from the mountainside through a gossamer veil of mist. In fact, I would see that same sight again, from higher up on the mountain, but each time, I would like it less and less until finally I would loathe the view so much that looking at it filled me with a disgust and horror such as I have never felt. But at that moment, it was peaceful, serene, and I enjoyed the sight so much that I nearly missed my path. But I found it and entered the forest, the path curving sharply to the right so I could no longer see the unfiltered light of day after only ten steps inside.
The inside of the forest was hot. It was early in the day yet, but the gigantic leaves trapped the heat and moisture in like some prehistoric hot house, and after only twenty or so minutes of walking, I was sweating profusely. I had to fight back the automatic action of wiping my forehead with my forearm, because the latter was so sweaty that it only worsened the matter those first few times I did it without checking myself. The flies were terrible as well. Within minutes of entering the forest, they descended on me, crawling on my arms and legs and buzzing in my ears and nose. My legs were clad in the blue jeans I had chosen specifically for their toughness and durability, but my arms were bare, as I had removed my sweatshirt for the heat, and the flies relished the sticky fluid flowing from my pores. I slapped at them, but they flew out of range for a few seconds, then swarmed back in, relentlessly attacking. But they were only a minor irritant, one soon ignored as the sun climbed higher in the sky and began baking me. I had hoped that the heat would reach the mud beneath me, turning it into a hard walkway instead of the slippery slope it was now, but I had no such luck. I made my way by grabbing onto the spindly branches that hung between trees like vines, and pulling myself up a step or two. Once or twice, I grabbed a plant that had thorns on it, and, pulling my hand away from the pain, nearly lost my balance and fell backwards down the mountain. In places, the mountain leveled out a bit, or the path went over stones instead of mud, or it dipped into the side so I could steady myself against the newly made walls, making normal movement possible, but these respites were only temporary, and few and far between.
Around midday, just as I was thinking of finding a place that was level enough to stop for a break, I reached for a branch and instead caught hold of something warm and furry. Surprised, I felt my feet go out from under me and I could make no attempt to catch myself. I fell into the mud, which reached up around me in the beginning of a lover's embrace, and then I was sliding backwards on my stomach. My scrabbling hand caught hold of a root and grasped it firmly. I swung back and forth as my momentum played itself out, then got carefully to my feet. As expected, my clothing was streaked with mud. One of my water bottles had fallen loose and disappeared down the mountain, but other than these minor annoyances, I was all right. I picked my way up the slope carefully, wary for the odd object I had unwittingly touched, and then I saw it. It looked like it had been dead for some time, as most of the flesh had fallen off, and it was barely recognizable as the dog it had once been. I could not even make out the color of its coat, the poor creature was so disfigured. Where there was still meat on the bones, the flies had gotten in, and now the whole corpse was covered in maggots. The flies buzzed around it too, satellites on a planet seething with life. The dog was hanging by its leash from one of the trees, and after suppressing the initial urge to retch, I thought that maybe I should take it down, keep it from scaring anyone else who might happen up the path. The thought of going any closer to that festering body than I had to was not something I relished, but I remembered the way its paw had felt in my hand, wet, lifeless, and I resolved to get the thing down.
I saw that the leash was wrapped around a few times in the tree above, and I stood on tiptoe to reach it. As I tried to untangle it, I shook the corpse inadvertently, and a rain of maggots cascaded down, wriggling away from the light into the mud. With barely controlled nausea, I continued my work. I found myself staring into the dog's eye more and more. One eye was already gone, eaten out by the maggots, but the other remained, lifelike and vivid and so untouched by rot that I felt it was watching me as I struggled with the knot. Staring close, I thought I could see a face in the pupil. At first, it seemed like my face, which would have made sense, being a reflection, but presently I knew that it was another's. For one thing, the other face had a beard, while my own cheeks were clean shaven. Fingers still working on the tangle, I leaned in as close as I could while still being able to tolerate the stench. The face stirred, opened its mouth to speak, and then the damn dog winked at me. My fingers caught the edge of the leash, undoing the knot, and the dog fell free onto the ground, hitting with a sickening squelch on the mud and shaking loose more of the filthy white crawling maggots. The flies continued their orbit around where the dog had been for a while longer, as they they had not yet realized it was gone, then dropped and began flying short hemispherical paths around the body. Then, terribly, the dog emitted a whimper, just as my own dog at home did when it caught a thorn in its nose. Its legs beat feebly against the air, as though it were trying to run. One eye looked at me, pleading for some kind of release, but I gave it none, because in the next moment, I was running up the hill, making all the effort humanly possible to put dirt and trees between me and that living corpse. Every now and then, I would slip, but I dug my fingers into the mud and kept myself from falling back down.
All at once, I burst into a clear patch of woods. So concentrated on what was behind me, I had not been paying attention to the path, and I nearly ran straight into a brush fire. The forest was burning. Great clouds of acrid gray smoke poured up into the sky, rolling up in puffs that grew and grew until they blocked out the sky. My eyes watered, and I stopped as sharply as possible. Here and there, I saw orange bursts of fire, scattered and lurking. The blaze appeared to be man-made, as a ring of brush had been cleared around the center to prevent the flames from spreading. Keeping as close as I could to the part of the mountain that was not burning, I edged my way around the fire until I reached the continuation of the path on the other side. Here, I was above the flame, but a steady wind blew the smoke away from me, and I thought that this might be a nice place for a break, if not for the death close by.
I was set to continue up the path when I nearly tripped over a man sitting cross-legged in my way. I excused myself. “Please,” said the man, “sit.” I did so, and let my heart calm down after the extreme shock of earlier. In the dim light that could filter through the thick smoke, I saw that he was an old man, with the skin and facial features that marked him as a member of the Ri-Zu tribe. He also wore the white pants and dark poncho typical of the male members of that people, although his head was bare of the usual fedora of his people, and so I could see the thinning grey hair that would have been hidden otherwise. He smiled at me warmly.
“What are you doing up here?” I asked him.
“An offering, for rain.”
“There was a rainstorm last night, a pretty big one. Why do you need more of it?”
But the man did not answer. He watched the fire without saying another word, until finally I said, “Well, this has been nice, but I think I'm going to be on my way no. 'I've got many promises to keep-'”
“'And many miles to go before I sleep.' Please, stay a while.” With this, I thought for a moment that it was the same man who had climbed the mountain with me earlier, but it wasn't. It looked like him, though, same nose, same eyes, same smile, but all the Ri-Zu people looked alike. Years and years of a small population living in the same place, never marrying outside of their people, does that. Maybe a love for poetry went with that, carried down through the genes, but at least he didn't speak only in verse, like my other friend. “I know you are very tired. You have been walking through the wilderness for a long time. You need some rest.”
“I've only been on this mountain for a couple of hours.”
“I was not referring just to the Mountain, my friend. Please, lean back and shut your eyes. It will do you good. I watch the fire to ensure it does not get out of control, but there is no need to worry. The proper precautions have been taken, and you will not be harmed or even disturbed.” The man's voice was hypnotic, and I experienced the strangest feeling.
A friend of mine once went to the Volusia County Fair and saw a hypnotist. Skeptical of the hypnotist's wild claims to put anyone he wanted under his control, my friend volunteered to be one of twelve of the hypnotist's subjects. The hypnotist first weeded out all of those he said were not “susceptible” to his powers by putting everyone to sleep and telling them all to cuddle up close to the person next to them. Those who wouldn't, the hypnotist removed from the stage. My friend, thinking that he would interrupt the act in the middle, pretended to do exactly what the hypnotist was saying, and so was chosen as one of the six remaining on stage. The hypnotist then told the audience that while each subject was asleep, he would tell that person to do one thing, act a certain way, and then snap his fingers and they would all awaken. To one woman, he told that she would need to search around the stage for her ass, which had fallen off. To my friend, he said to act as though a dog were biting his calves. Not a large dog, but just a tiny nip in the back of the legs. And then he snapped his fingers, and they all awoke.
At this point, everyone who hears the story asks the same question, Did it work? Were you really hypnotized and had no control over what you were doing? And to this, my friend always gives the same answer: it felt as though I could stop what I was doing at any time, that I was the one making myself do what the hypnotist said, not because he had any special power over me, but because I genuinely wanted to do it. I did things that I would never want to do again, like singing a famous song in front of an audience of forty people I didn't know, but at the time, I wanted to do them. Not because I felt any sense of responsibility to the hypnotist, but because, at that point in time, I truly and genuinely wanted to act as though a dog were biting my legs, or to sing a song. It was the strangest feeling I have ever had.
I used to laugh at my friend whenever he told this story, saying he was just making it up, but after listening to the Ri-Zu man without the hat, I realized that I most truly and surely wanted to lie back and close my eyes. I was not feeling all that tired, but I wanted rest. I have been through times before when my body was worn out, but my mind couldn't get to sleep, but this was truly the first that my body was awake and my mind wanted rest. I didn't yawn, or stretch, or feel any of the usual signs of tiredness, but I opened my eyes to say something to the man and saw that it was dark. I had been asleep for six hours, maybe more. I checked my watch, but saw that it was gone, as was my backpack. I shivered suddenly, and felt the mud clinging to my back, and realized that I was completely naked. The man had robbed me, and taken with him everything I had, even the clothes off my back.
It was a very odd sensation, lying on the side of a mountain in the cold mud with thousands of stars above me, stark naked. But I didn't feel anger, quite the opposite. I felt at peace, connected with the earth and the sky above. A dim mist was forming, the air condensing in tiny puffs around me, like bubbles, almost. The fire was gone, burned itself out and leaving only ashes and blackened things that might once have been trees in its wake. I could still smell the smoke, though, and I sat up to take better stock of things. At least, that's what I had planned to do, and then I caught sight of the city down below, glittering with tiny electric lights, like a blanket of orange and green stars spread out across the plains, a distorted reflection of the night heavens up above. There were, of course, no lights on the inland waterway, but I could see the sliver of moon shining in the water as it let out onto the ocean. The ocean was just a blank, black slate. I couldn't make out any individual waves or boats that might have been out there that night. I thought that perhaps the scene would be better when the moon was on the horizon, so that it reflected cleanly across the sea waters.
Out of the forest below me, I saw something large and black rise up, blotting out parts of the city and the stars. I drew myself up to attention, watching it intently. It was a vast oval of darkness, with what looked like a long thin tail. And then I saw that it had to be some kind of bird, as it had wings that flapped and threw the thing up into the sky, above me now. Silhouetted against the stars, my eyes adjusted and I saw that the thing was not black, but rather a white, a dulled white, as of very old stone, but white nonetheless. And the thought of stone put stirred something in my memory, but it was gone as I heard a series of monstrous crashes, and felt the ground shake beneath me. It was an evenly paced tempo, as though something gigantic were walking, something weighing thousands and thousands of pounds. And then it rose up, and I could see it as I had seen the other thing, a black cut out of the lights in the city below. This was man-shaped, though, humanoid. There was a burst of blue light from the thing flying above, and I could see both, and I knew what I had remembered in that moment.
The bird was not a bird, but a dragon, a white, scaly, stone dragon grown to its normal, mythical size when given a mystical life, and now breathing flames blue with heat. The humanoid thing was the statue of Saint Michael that stood watch over Tropic Park from its seat on the ridge leading away from the mountain, his sword held aloft and his shield shining bright in the moonlight. Saint Michael held his shield up to cover his face, and the flames broke against it, splitting around him and catching some of the trees on fire. They lit the scene with an unearthly light, because the trees burned green. The dragon swooped in, but Saint Michael blocked it with his shield, then went for the body with the sword. The dragon dodged around and sunk its teeth into the flesh of Saint Michael's upper arm.
Saint Michael roared with pain and anger, his voice reverberating in the silence. The dragon tore out the hunk of flesh, but no blood fell from the wound. Instead, it broke off and left a jagged hole, which only made sense, because it was stone. The piece fell from the dragon's mouth and shattered. I heard, rather than saw, trees falling, crushed under the immense weight of the stone fragments. Saint Michael battered the dragon with his shield, and caught it sharply on the head. The dragon, disoriented from the knock, stumbled, or what I thought was analogous to a stumble, as the dragon was in the air. Taking advantage of the situation, Saint Michael lifted his sword high up into the air. The stone rang, hurting my ears, and then the sword came down on the dragon's neck. The dragon dropped like a stone and let out a bellow, a shriek of pain that made my teeth chatter. Saint Michael raised the sword and brought it down again. The dragon's scales were strong, because the thing continued to cry in agony. It writhed about, knocking trees this way and that. Saint Michael raised and lowered the sword one last time, and then the dragon went silent.
The statue of Saint Michael stood still for several seconds, and I thought it might have reverted to its nonliving state, but then it shifted slowly, turning in my direction, and looked at me. Its eyes were a fiery orange, burning at me from the distance, and it began to laugh, and I could not help but notice the similarity between that which was dead and the thing now bellowing up at me. Saint Michael lifted its sword, and threw it. I saw the thing coming closer and closer, growing larger until it filled my entire vision. And then it struck!
I felt a searing pain below my chest as the sword pierced my skin and went through my spine and buried itself in the mountainside. Blood burst out from me, draining onto the sword and staining the white marble a terrible red. I put my hands on the sword, wider than I was, and still sticking out at least one hundred feet into the sky. I felt as my breath grew labored, and I could no longer pull air into my lungs, no doubt due to the destroyed diaphragm that would never again serve to expand the lungs. With no power in them, my hands fell to the mud floor, where they sank slowly downwards. In fact, I could feel my whole body sinking into the mountain. The mud came up and flowed into my ears, my nose, my mouth. At last, it covered my eyes, and I was floating in the darkness.
Detached from everything, I had no sense of self, no identity, and no center. I tried to lift my hand in front of my eyes, but I did not know where my eyes or my hands were, or how to control them, or even if they existed or not. Somewhere close by, yet far away, something sounded. I could not hear, but I felt the vibrations around me, wherever I was, and they flowed through me. I could sense the movements of something large, Cyclopean in scale, and I wanted to run, to flee the monstrous thing, but I could no more run than breathe, or see. The thing lumbered closer, towards me in a straight line, though I did not know whether it was coming up or down or at a slant, because I did not know which way I was oriented because I had no idea of my own being. Closer it came, the vibrations reaching a maddening pitch, but a ray burst out from an infinite distance away, a warm yellow beam of light that cut a swatch in between me and the monster, protecting me. The thing gibbered in the distance, thwarted. Another ray sprang into being, this one pink, and then another, and another, and soon the whole picture was filled in.
The sky above me was bright with the first rays of the morning sun shining on the mountain. I noticed first after this that I still wore my clothes, and my backpack was close at hand. So the events of the night before were a dream, had to have been a dream, I assured myself. Certainly, my legs were still below me, attached as they had always been to my waist and from there to my stomach and my spine. I breathed in, taking simple relief at the way my stomach expanded and contracted with each gulp of air. I sat up, sore from spending the night on mud, and saw again the view from the city I had admired so much the day before. But I also saw the statue of Saint Michael as he stood with one foot on the dragon, slain at his feet, and I did not feel such love of the city as I had before.
I got to my feet, stretching and shaking away the stiffness. It was colder than the day before, and I put my sweatshirt back on. The man from the day before was gone, and the fire was out, leaving ashes and blackened and twisted stumps. There was a wind blowing up, and I turned my back onto it and made my way into the dense, dark forest path. I was never a superstitious man before I came to Tropic Park, but I got then a message, a very strong and clear sensation that the day ahead of me was going to be worse than the day before. I believe now in feelings like that, because my path ahead only worsened from that moment on.

VII. Out of the Forest,
or Making New Friends

It didn't start out all that bad, though. I worked my way up the mountain much the same way I had the day before, hauling myself from vine to vine. In fact, it was a little better, because the mud had hardened pretty well and, besides the occasional wet spot, I didn't have to worry about slipping. Walking so early in the morning, at the very crack of dawn, as it were, also helped. There were no flies out at this hour, and the heat had not yet reached its peak. From that place of the fire, it wasn't much further to the end of the forest, and I soon broke out of the trees and into the brush, the area where the soil was too rocky or the altitude too great for the forest to grow. It was incredible the way the trees simply stopped. In one step, they were on either side, and in the next, they weren't. And all the way around, as far as I could see, the trees all stopped growing at the same height, and there were no trees farther up.
But as far as I could see was not very far, for I had walked unknowingly straight into a cloud. For about sixty feet, I could see more or less clearly, but then I ran up against a wall of pure whiteness, thick and heavy and almost tangible. This whiteness extended up around me in a kind of hemisphere. Small wisps of clouds floated along the ground, weaving in and out amongst the bushes like wraiths in search of souls. The foliage consisted almost uniformly of one plant, a light green bush with thin blades about a foot long extending out in a widening cone from the base. I felt cold again, and put on my jacket, which I had taken off as the day progressed and the temperature climbed. There was nothing to hold the heat in on this new step, and I was suddenly aware of just how high up I was. Above me, the cloud had moved on, and I at once felt a sense of despair, for, as far as I had climbed that day and the day before, the way above was much, much more. It was so much that it seemed that everything I had done before was of no import.
“Hello, there!” said a voice which I recognized. Jonas Tyris III was hailing me from a rock about thirty feet away. There was space for another person on that rock, and he patted the spot next to him in a gesture for me to come and sit, which I did. “I didn't expect to see you up here,” he said when I had settled myself.
I drew out a bottle of water, took a swallow from it, and offered the bottle to him. He refused it. “The feelings mutual. I thought you said you were a bit too old for this kind of thing.”
“I thought that you didn't have any archaeological tendencies.”
“How did you know what I'm up here for?”
“What else could you be up here for? Anyway, after I talked to you last, I got to thinking about the top of the mountain, about that incredible find that was up there, about how amazing it would be for a worn out archaeologist to find something of that magnitude. I turned it over and over again in my head, thinking about the impact it would make on the archaeological world, a unique language, hidden for thousands of years, and finally I knew I had to make one last go at it. But I was right the first time, I am too old for this kind of thing. I made it a little farther than this, up to the Tomb Stone, but then I had to stop. I'm on my way down now, and you're on your way up. Things are like that for old men and young men, aren't they. I just wish I could have seen the world from up high before I died.”
“Life's a bitch and then you die, so fuck the world and let's get high.”
“What?”
“Nothing. What was that thing you mentioned? The tombstone, was it?”
“The Tomb Stone. It's a giant flat stone, laid down horizontally. The indigenous people used to take their dead and bury them up here. After the eruption, the graveyard was buried under solid lava and ash, and they stopped interring the bodies here. To mark the place, they dragged up this stone, it must way tons, don't ask me how they did it, and put it down over the tombs. So, it's called the Tomb Stone. Not many visitors up this way anymore. The indigenous people rarely come up here anymore, except every couple of years where they do a special kind of Day of the Dead celebration. But up above that, no one goes any further. There are all sorts of superstitions about Lonesome Mountain, about what happens to the people who go up higher than the Tomb Stone.”
“Yeah, I heard one of those. Crazy stuff.”
Tyris stood. “Well, anyways, I better get going before I stiffen up too much to walk. When you get back, come and see me. I'm just dying to know what you find up there. I've wanted that for maybe forty, fifty years.” And Tyris carefully made his way down the slope to the forest path I had just come out of.
I waited for a bit, drinking some more water, and then continued. It was difficult work, more difficult than the forest had been. Here, the plants absorbed most of the water, so the ground wasn't muddy, and it wasn't so hot at least, but there were other problems. For one, the angle was greater, so now I really was climbing as opposed to walking. It wasn't a sheer cliff, but it was greater than forty-five degrees. And there wasn't really anything to hold on to to steady myself. Every time I thought I was going to go over backwards, which was quite a few, I would grab one of the plants, and every time, the plant gouged me deeply, as the leaves really were like blades, cutting into me. I wished I had brought some gloves, but I hadn't anticipated needing any.
The cloud cover left slowly, and I could generally make out the city through the fog. I didn't pay much attention to it, though, concentrating as I was on the climbing, but when I did stop and look at it, I was struck by how silent everything was at my height. I would watch a cruise ship go out, and hear nothing of the horn that I knew was blaring out a warning to smaller boats in its path, nor the horns of the cars stuck on the causeways as the boat passed by. The pelicans skimming the water were just dots to me now, and I could not hear them either, with their loud calls as they flew in formation. The silence was nearly overwhelming on the mountain now. No animals could be heard, not even the flies that had tortured me so as I walked up through the forest. I felt isolated again, distinctly alone, and I knew that I would meet no more people as I went.
But around three o'clock in the afternoon, I heard a dog barking. I wasn't sure at first that I had really heard it, a long silence will make you think you hear things, I have found, but then I heard it again. It was a quick bark, from far off, and it sounded like a small dog making it. It was high pitched, the kind of noise I hated back home, because the small dogs always bark right when you're trying to get to sleep, and the sound drills into your ear and keeps you awake for hours. I ignored it at first, as it didn't concern me, but the sound steadily grew closer and closer. I thought that, as I climbed higher, it might go away, but no. It seemed as though the dog knew where I was and was coming for me, but that was ridiculous. And when I did find the dog, at five-thirty when the sun was just tilted behind the mountain enough to cast me in shadow, I didn't think much of it.
It was a small black dog, what my grandfather affectionately referred to as a “boot dog” for the ability to “boot” a small dog pretty far across a room. I've never been good with identifying dog breeds, but from the curly fur and stature of the thing, I thought it might be a purebred. Certainly, most of the mutts I have seen have been of medium size or larger. It had a small pink tongue that just barely hung out over its teeth, which where also small but very sharp. When it found me, it came running up and nipped me on the leg. I was wearing my jeans, so it didn't hurt, but it did startle me into overbalancing because I hadn't been looking in the direction, and I had to grab onto one of the bushes, badly damaging my hand, of course, to keep from falling back down the side of the mountain. Grumbling, I sat back against a clear spot of dirt and looked down at the dog. It might have been a puppy, but I'm no good with guessing the ages of animals that are always small, going by size as the normal way of estimating maturity. It rubbed up against my shoes and barked good-naturedly. I took a piece of bread out of my pocket and gave the creature a piece. It ate it hungrily and stared at me, waiting for more. I gave it another, and it ate that one too. I fed that thing at least five slices of bread before I finally decided that it had eaten enough. I would have given it some water too, but I didn't have anything to put the water in to let it drink out of, and I figured that it could have gotten some of the water out of the river that flows down from the mountain peak.
The dog was actually a decent mountain climber, for having no opposable thumbs. It managed to keep up with me all afternoon. I had hoped it would leave me alone, but I imagined that it expected more food. Certainly, I gave it no reason to leave, as I would feed it tidbits, a cracker here, a piece of bread there, as we went. Truth be told, I was actually glad of its company, glad that there was another living thing that high up besides bushes. Soon, I began finding blueberry bushes, which was a pleasant surprise. The berries were very tasty, and grew almost everywhere. They were large and perfectly round, and it didn't seem that anyone had been up there in a while to pick them. I gorged myself on them, happy for something that wasn't dry, as I had already eaten the oranges and apples I had packed in my bag. I took out one of my empty water bottles and began filling it with blueberries, figuring that when I got further up where there were no more plants, I would be happy for them. I tried feeding the dog some, but it wouldn't eat any, which was hardly surprising to me. None of my dogs have ever eaten fruit, although I did have one dog once that absolutely loved carrots.
When the sky started to grow dark, the dog threw up an incessant howling, a series of quick short barks followed by a sustained growl that grew into a howl. It was horribly annoying, and I tried telling the dog to stop, but it didn't understand me or didn't listen. The dog hopped around me in circles, jumping up and putting its feet on my pants leg and then hopping away. I tried pushing it away with my foot, then accidentally kicked it. After that, it continued howling but stopped trying to touch me. I fed it a cracker as a way of apology, and continued. I wasn't all that concerned with what the dog thought of me.
As full night fell, I could see the stars come out one by one, until there were thousands of them covering the sky. I could see the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, the Bear, Orion the Hunter with his sword in full glory. Some of the constellations I had only read about, never seen because they were very faint with the atmospheric distortion from sea level and the light pollution of the city, but up there, I could see everything, as bright as the moon. There was a red star I thought might be Mars, the planet, circling around the heavens with Earth. Then the moon came up, very late. I usually could see it in the late afternoon, but today it was just peeking up over the horizon. It was only half-full, but it was very large, so large that I could see the finest curves and changes in the ridges of the craters. Its brightness far outshone any of the stars, and I stood there, watching it shine out over the ocean water, until the dog started barking again, a sign that I had stopped too long in one place.
With the moon came the sound of running water, and I realized that I was coming close to the river. I came upon it very suddenly, finding out when my hand reached up and found itself in five inches of cold wetness. It could hardly be called a river at that height, because it was only eight feet wide and two feet deep in the center, but I knew that it would soon come into its own as it fell down into the brackish inland waterway. The water was clear, like finely polished glass, albeit glass glass that rippled and undulated with the current, and I could see all the way down to the bottom, a dark brown distinctly not clear mud. Further down the stream, I would have expected to see fish swimming lazily about, waiting for flies to land on the surface of the river, but here the water was empty. Nothing would brave the current of gravity to fight for a place that had no food to give it, no benefit at all. I thought perhaps the dog might drink from the water, but it stayed well back from the edge. I had no such reservations, though, and cupped my hands to pick up some of that water. There was a sharp nip in the flesh just above my ankle, one that got through the tough fabric of my jeans, and I let out a short cry.
It was that damned dog again, begging for another piece of bread. I don't know why I did what I did next. There really was no call for it, but I couldn't help myself. I was angry, frustrated, and I didn't really mean to hit the dog that hard. But I raised my hand and brought it down on the dog's neck. It whimpered, that high whine that I hated so much, and before I could stop myself, I was hitting it again. I kicked it, sending it a few feet away into a clump of prickles. A savage joy rose up in me, and I surrendered utterly to my basest instincts. I gave chase, and beat it, striking its body again and again until one blow fell on the neck, catching it in just the wrong place. I felt some of the fragile bones of the dog's vertebrae snap under the blow, and the dog went limp in an instant, collapsing onto the muddy bank of that river. At first, I didn't fully comprehend what I had done. There was no connection in my mind between my hand and the dead thing lying next to me. The thing's eyes were mercifully closed, and it just lay there, as though it had gone to sleep. I reached down and tried to roll it over. Only the front half of it rolled over, the head and forelegs, while the back half lay unmoving. It was a horrible detail, and I knew then that it was dead, because I had never seen a living dog do that, contort itself in that way without trying to right itself again. The thing's mouth fell open when I moved it, the flesh over it pulled back to reveal sharp yellow teeth. The tongue lay out like a wrinkled slice of meat, of bologna. I picked the dog up. Its body twisted back into alignment like a pendulum, swinging a few times before becoming straight again, and its legs fell every which way. It was an inert sack of flesh and blood, still warm, and I felt bile rising in my throat as I held back the attack of nausea I knew was coming. I dropped the dog into the mud. It hit and rolled, falling silently into the river without making even a ripple, as though the water itself had reached up to take the dog in. Not even looking at the place where the body had disappeared, I plunged through the river and up the slope, not stopping, not tiring, not growing thirsty.
Climbing at night was hard work, made only the tiniest bit easier by the bright light of the moon and the stars. By my watch, it was nine forty-five when I reached the long stone slab that could only be the Tomb Stone that Tyris had told me about. There was no sign that human life had been there, no discarded beer bottles or potato chip bags or candy wrappers, and I wondered how many people had visited the site besides Tyris and myself. The people who set the stone had dug into the mountain considerably, hollowing out an area about twelve feet into the mountain and straight up, removing a wedge shaped piece of rock from the area. The actual Tomb Stone was made in the gray rock that seems so unremarkable to most of us, because it is an entirely generic type of stone, but it was unusual in this context because the only stones on the mountain are black basalt, the solidified lava rocks. Exactly how the ancient indigenous people could carry a stone that large all the way up the side of a mountain was incredible to me. But then, I didn't even understand how they could bury people right into the direct rock of the mountainside.
Stopping to examine the strange rock, I realized how dry my throat was, and how sore my feet, and I pulled myself up onto the flat surface to rest a while. It occurred to me that this might very well be the last flat surface before getting to the top of the mountain. That so, I stretched myself out on it and lay there, looking up at the stars and taking quick sips from my water bottle, which was my second to last one. I wondered how I would get down, with the steep angle of descent. The river was somewhere close by, and the running water slowly began lulling me to sleep. I thought again, as I had many times during my climb up the side of Lonesome Mountain, what my purpose was in going to the peak. I wanted to learn the language, yes, but it was only a vague rumor, from one source who was so old that his mind was probably starting to go, that said there was anything up there at all. And even if I did manage to find the Rosetta Stone of the Ri-Zu language, what then? There was no guarantee that anyone would be able to translate the language. Truth was, I was making a fool of myself, climbing up the mountain like this. My clothes were muddy, torn, and I didn't think my hands would ever fully heal from the cuts and scratches all over them. And the sleeping on hard ground and strenuous all day exercise was starting to affect my mind. I had never hurt anything in my life the way I hit that dog. Maybe it was time to turn back, leave the archeology business for someone who majored in archeology in college, not in mathematics.
Sleep was coming fast, and I didn't fight it, but before I could get any rest, I heard another sound, that of someone crying. It was a human cry this time, not like that dog (I shuddered to think of what I had done. Already it seemed an eternity ago.), and it came from not far off. I sat up, my back stiff from the cold stone. The crying grew closer. I was almost certain now that it was a little girl, and sure enough, rounding the mountain several yards away was a young child, maybe ten or eleven, judging from her stature. She wore a white dress with flowers on it, and an improbably large sun hat, made of straw. “Hello, there, little girl,” I said, as friendly as I could. The girl stopped crying. Her face was hidden by the brim of her hat, so she had to tilt her head way back to see me. I waved. “Come on up,” I said. “Take a seat.” She sniffed loudly.
“Okay.” She crawled up to the Tomb Stone and sat down next to me. The knees of her dress were dirty, and her shoes were scuffed and dusty. Her face was bright red from the exertion, and her eyes bloodshot. It seemed to me that she had been crying for quite some time. At first, I was startled by an intense feeling that I had seen her somewhere before, but it passed and I offered her some water, which she took gratefully, holding the bottle with both hands as she let the water spill into her mouth. Then she handed it back.
“What's your name?” I asked.
“Chrysanthemum.”
“That's quite a name. Do you mind if I call you Chris?”
“No. That's what my mother calls me.”
“Okay, Chris. Where is your mother?”
I saw tears well up in Chrysanthemum's eyes again. “I don't know. We came here for a picnic, me and my mommy and my doggy, and then a man came and my mommy told me to run away and then she went away and I don't know where she is and I'm scared, Mister... Mister...”
“Tom. My name's Tom. But don't worry. You don't have to be scared anymore. You're with me, now. I'll protect you.” The girl leaned against me, and I gave her a one-armed hug.
“But what if that madman comes back again? Who's going to protect you?”
“I don't need anyone to protect me, because I've got this.” I took the necklace out from under my shirt and showed it to her. The ruby in the center twinkled in the moonlight, and the basalt glistened. Chrysanthemum's eyes grew wide.
“Wow, Mister Tom. That's beautiful.” She poked the ruby, and the disc spun around, throwing the red light of the reflection over her face. She pulled on the amulet, but it was still around my neck, so she only jerked my head forward.
“It's an amulet of protection. The Indians who live here on the mountain made it three thousand years ago, after the volcano erupted. It's strong enough to protect me from any kind of madman out there.” I smiled, to let her know that I would be all right.
Then her face clouded over again. “But I'm still worried. What if something happens to you, like you trip or you fall or something, and then you die and I'm up here all alone and the madman comes back and tries to kill me?”
She was on the verge of tears, so I said, “Look, what if I give you the amulet? I'm a big strong man, I can handle any madman who tries to come after me. I think you need it more than I do.” Chrysanthemum nodded, and I took the amulet off and put it around Chrysanthemum's neck. “There you go. All safe and sound, now.” I patted her on the head. She certainly seemed familiar, though to who or to what I didn't know.
The news of a madman on Lonesome Mountain was troubling, and I figured that I would have to take Chrysanthemum back down to Tropic Park right away. I'd take her to the police station and we'd find out who her family was, maybe locate the mother if she was back, or start a manhunt on the mountain if she wasn't. I was tired, but going downhill was sure to be easier than climbing up. It's always harder to go up than to get down. I've found. I yawn, and scratched my chin. Stubble had grown in the days I had been on the mountain. I wondered what I looked like.
“It was a tall man,” Chrysanthemum said, “a tall man with brown hair.”
“Who? The man who attacked you?”
“Yes. He was tall, with brown hair, and a beard.”
“You shouldn't think about it now, Chris. It'll just make you upset. Let's just get down the mountain, okay?” I stood up and held out my hand to help Chrysanthemum to her feet. She didn't take it.
“It wasn't really a beard. It was almost a beard. And he had brown eyes. And his face was thin, with a pointy chin. But the chin had hair on it, so I couldn't see it real well.”
“Come on, let's go.”
“He was wearing a blue jacket, and he had a backpack. I don't remember it real well, because I had to run away. My mommy told me to. But I do remember some things. In fact, he looked kind of like you.”
I was putting the water bottle and assorted food stuffs into my backpack, but I stopped at this. “Like me​?” I turned around slowly. Chrysanthemum was watching me intently, her hands on either cheek. The moon was bright on my face, blinding. “You don't know what you're saying. Now let's go.”
But Chrysanthemum didn't move. “He looked exactly like you. I didn't see you real well before, but now I know. It's you, isn't it? You're the madman.”
“What? No. I'm not. Trust me.” I held out my hand again, but she scurried backwards away from it.
“Stay away from me!” She huddled up against the place where the Tomb Stone and the mountain came together. “Don't come near me!”
“Chrysanthemum, I'm not the bad guy!”
“No!” she screamed, and quick as a whip, she had reached up and grabbed onto the bushes above her, and pulled herself up. I tried to catch her, but she was gone, running up as well as was possible on the sloped, uneven ground.
“Chrysanthemum! Come back!” But she was running, running away. I clambered up and tried to follow, but before long she was out of sight, too far away to be seen. I collapsed into the mountain, breathing heavily, and waited for my heart to stop pounding. But it didn't, because I realized something I hadn't paid attention to at all before, but now came down on me suddenly, like remembering you left the stove on a half hour after leaving the house, or that it's your anniversary but you haven't made any reservations. I was still speaking the ancient language of the Sih-Tos, but that girl had understood every word. I put my hands up to my eyes and groaned. The Mountain couldn't hurt me when I had that amulet, but I gave the amulet to the girl, the girl Chrysanthemum who could somehow understand a language no one did but me, and now she was gone, and my only protection with her. I had been a fool, not paying attention to the simplest of facts, letting myself be addled by adrenaline and pity and concern. A fool, a damned fool. There was something on the Mountain, or in the Mountain, something that didn't want me reaching that peak, and now that I had no amulet, I knew I would have to be more careful. I had gotten this far by sheer luck, luck and the presence of mind to accept the beliefs of the Ri-Zus as facts. If only I had been more aware, I might still have had the amulet, but that was gone now, and I set myself to concentrate on the next step. Now, I told myself, I will get up and climb to the peak. But no sooner did I think that then I was asleep.

VIII. Discovery of the Written Language,
or Trapped in a Cold, Dark Pit

The view that morning of Tropic Park from above, from the great height bestowed by virtue of climbing the Mountain, was to be my last of such sights, for that was the last morning I awoke on the Mountain. The clouds had gathered again, some below me now, some above, but they were thin and wispy, and burned away as the morning progressed and the sun shone upon them. Making out individual buildings was a challenge now, and cars and people impossible. The ocean was an iron gray, and the sky the same, such that I couldn't make out where the sea ended and the heavens began. It seemed that the plane of the Earth curved up and over, that the sky blended into the sea seamlessly, an illusion reinforced by the way the water reflected the clouds. It was a disgusting image, a perversion of nature, and I turned my back on it.
My mad pursuit of the girl Chrysanthemum the night before had brought me out of the weeds and onto the final stage of my journey, the top part of the mountain that led to the peak. This part was much shorter than the others, so I expected to be up at the peak by mid-afternoon. There were no more plants of any kind. The only variation in the black basalt landscape was the occasional drift of snow, which I imagined would become more in frequency as I went higher. The temperature was now very low, and I wished I had brought more clothes with me than just my blue jacket, but there wasn't any time to dwell on that mistake now. In the growing light, I carefully picked my way away from the peak, which was now in sight, though far, far away, still. I'd had enough of the Mountain, of the tricks, of the illusions. I was done, and I was going home.
At around nine o'clock in the morning, I came across a hole in the ground. It was a small hole, maybe three feet in diameter, and so deep I couldn't see the bottom. I didn't remember any such hole before, but I figured I had probably gotten turned around somehow. “Hello!” I called into it, and my voice echoed off the bottom and came back to me. I stood, looking over the hole, and then I felt a hand on my back, a firm hand, and I tumbled forward, and was skidding my way towards the bottom at a frightful velocity. I crashed into the bottom, landing on my ass, thankfully, and so was only bruised, not broken. When I was oriented to my new position, I looked up to see the way I had come. There was only a bright circle of light high above to mark where I had fallen in. “Who the hell was that? Who are you?”
A voice, a sweet child's voice, came floating down to me, echoing around and around the bottom. “Hello, Mister Tom!” The sound crescendoed around me, bursting in my ears, and then died away. “I said, 'Hello, Mister Tom!'” It was the girl, Chrysanthemum, but she sounded older now. Or perhaps it was that she wasn't crying.
“What the hell's going on?” I called up to her. “Why'd you push me in?”
“I didn't, Mister Tom! You fell in!” She laughed. Chrysanthemum laughed at me.
“Get me out of here!” I said, loudly and gruffly, trying to mask some of the desperation I was starting to feel.
“What's that? You want me to leave you there?”
“No! Don't leave me here! Get a rope or something!” But what was even the point. The girl was part of the Mountain, and if she had pushed me down there in the first place, she wasn't going to help me out.
“Okay, I'll just put this rock over the hole. Someone might trip and fall in, you know!” How the girl could move a rock large enough to block the entrance, I don't know, but then, I wasn't even sure if she was a girl, and not some foreign entity in disguise. I wasn't sure of anything. It was the Mountain's doing, somehow. The Mountain was alive. It was a ridiculous thought, one that outside of that pit would have been ludicrous. Before I climbed the Mountain, I would have dismissed it outright, and now that I have reached the peak, I know it to be false. No, the Mountain is not alive. There was another reason for the things I experienced, but I will get to them in due time.
I sat in that pit for a while, in the darkness, wondering exactly how I would get out of it. There was no one that high up on the Mountain, no one knew that I was there except an indigenous woman who would be happier with me dead, and the mad Chrysanthemum who had thrown me in in the first place. And I had no rope or climbing gear to help me out of there. It was a terrible situation. With a sense of desperation, I decided to search the walls around me for footholds, thinking perhaps that I might climb out unaided. In my backpack, I found a flashlight, which I switched on to take a look at things. There was writing on the walls all around me, the Sih-To writing that I couldn't read yet. I ran my fingers over the paint, which cracked and crumbled away beneath my touch. How such fragility could survive thousands of years of wind and rain was beyond me.
I tried to find patterns in the writing, something to occupy my time while I waited for an escape opportunity to present itself (there were no footholds). The language, I saw, consisted of words divided into pictographs. At least, I thought they were words because they were separated by spaces. Each pictograph had one of five curbed symbols within it, either a circle or half of an oval, the latter rotated ninety degrees four times to get four symbols, and one of eighteen straight symbols, these lines like Xs or Vs. No symbol was repeated in the preceding or succeeding pictograph, unless separated by a space, and I saw several miniature symbols next to the larger pictographs. One particular pictograph was repeated many times, and was a word in and of itself. It was a circle, with a right angle cutting out the lower right-hand quadrant. I thought to myself, seeking to connect the part of my brain that held the language with the part that could analyze language, and came up with only a few words in that language that had only one syllable to them. The first that came to mind was “Moe,” which can mean “he,” “him,” or “his.” And this made sense, because I found the pictograph again in another word, with two pictographs, the first “Moe” as I thought of it, and the second an arch with an upside-down V in it. The only word I knew with two syllables and the first being “Moe” was “Moe Nay,” or “wind.” With this, I had another pictograph in mind. Following this pattern, I identified a sideways arch with an X through it as “Ruh,” part of “Ruh Nay,” which means “eternal,” to “Why-Ruh,” “zenith,” to “Zehm Why,” “under” or “beneath” and from there I steadily worked my way through the entire alphabet. The language, once I could connect the spoken part which I knew to the written part which I didn't, was fairly easy to understand. Each curved symbol connects to one of five vowel sounds, “ay,” “ee,” “eye,” “owe,” or “oo.” Each straight symbol represents a consonant sound, eighteen in total. There are a few minor details, additional modifier symbols that change the sound of the syllable slightly, and punctuation, but those were simple matters. I had it. I had both parts of the language. And so I put myself to reading the message written on the wall.
“Thomas Reed. You are the zenith. You are the result of thousands of years of waiting, of brooding in the darkness, of watching the wind tear at the flesh, of feeling the eternal cold gnaw at the bones. It is you, Thomas. As was foretold, as will be done. You will go to the peak, and under the heavens, you will do as was foretold, and fulfill what is to come. You are the zenith.”
My mind could not wrap around what the message was saying. It was impossible. The age of the writing was obvious, but how could that be, how could the ancient scribe know my name, know I would fall into this hole. How was any of this possible? It was a question that would save my soul, but that comes later.
As I came to the end of the message, repeating it out loud as I went, my flashlight was suddenly extinguished. This in itself was not so strange, as it had been flickering for some time, but the timing was nothing short of miraculous, as though some entity had kept the flashlight glowing until I saw what I needed. The Mountain wanted me to go to the top, to do something there. But I wouldn't. “I won't! You hear me? I won't do it!” But of course, no one answered.
Even now, I don't know how much time I spent in that hole. My watch was no help. It had a light built in to illuminate the dials in darkness, but when I checked it once, it said three o'clock in the afternoon, but looking at it a minute later said five o'clock in the morning. Once, I thought I saw the second hand moving backwards, and another time, not at all. Eventually, I stopped checking it, and just sat in the stillness. The quiet bore in on me. There was no sound at all, except of my steady breathing and, if I listened closely, my heartbeat. When I got hungry, I would feel around for my backpack and find something to eat out of there, but I could tell my food supplies were diminishing rapidly. It was cold in that pit, and dark, and I waited for several hours at least for something to happen. The silence was oppressive, it weighed on my back like a barbell, heavy and immovable. I started singing, to try to hear something, anything, in that emptiness.
“I'll go no more a-climbing,
That Lonsesome Mountainside.
Though now I be a-rhyming,
I nearly up and died.”
I don't know why I sang that particular song. It was the first thing that came into my head. It was in the language, but it still rhymed, which was odd. My voice came back to me, harsh and distorted, from the stone barrier above. I stopped singing. I think I might have slept, but again, with my watch playing tricks on me, I had no way of knowing.

After I had spent what I estimated to be an entire day in that pit, I began to call out, thinking that perhaps Chrysanthemum was sitting just outside of the entrance, waiting. “Hey! Let me out of here!” My words didn't reach anyone, or if they did, no one answered. “Hey! I'm down here! Let me out!” Nothing. Now, I was angry, angry at Chrysanthemum for pushing me in, angry at my mother, for forcing me to come to Tropic Park, angry at my father, for bringing my mother here to give birth to me, tying me to the city and the Mountain, but most of all, I was angry at myself, for being so stupid as to follow the wild chase. Jonas Tyris III, when I met him on the Mountain, spoke to me and understood me, even though I wasn't speaking English. Every step of the way as I climbed the Mountain, every time I felt like turning back, there was something there, pushing me forward, Tyris, with his claims of a Rosetta Stone at the peak, the little girl, Chrysanthemum, leading me on a chase up the mountain, and now, when I had been walking down, getting thrown into a hole. It was all so obvious, so clear, and I had been a fool, and walked right into the trap they had laid for me, whoever “they” were. But I wasn't going to do it, whatever it was. I would rot away, let the flies lay their eggs in my flesh and wait for the maggots to pop out of my eyes before I gave in to them. And so I sat in the darkness, feeding myself blueberries out of my water bottle one at a time, squeezing them between my tongue and the roof of my mouth to let the juice flow out and down the back of my throat. I had thought they were ripe when I picked them, but as I ate, they tasted sour, bitter, and I hated them. But I had very little food left besides the blueberries, so I chewed the skins after sucking out the juice, and mashed them into a little ball in my mouth, which I held on my tongue. The awful taste let me know that for one more berry, I was still alive.
Sometime later, much later, after I was out of food and drink and just beginning to have the intense pangs of hunger in my stomach, I felt a faint fluttering around me, and then heard a sharp high buzzing noise. It was a fly. How it had gotten in, or whether it had been there all along, I didn't know, but it began to fly around me, paying special attention to my ears. I slapped at it, more than once landing my hand unexpectedly against the stone wall of my prison and bending the fingers back to far. I chipped several nails, as well, in the process, and tore open some of the cuts that had started to scab over on my hands, but I was to wound up to notice. Finally, I had something to take out my frustration on, and I couldn't see it, and it was too small to hit with a random swing. I would hurt myself, and get more upset, and try even harder to kill the fly, and hurt myself more. It was a vicious cycle.
Another fly joined in, and now the two were buzzing incessantly around me. Then another, and another, and another, until there must have been hundreds of flies with me in that pit, flying into my ears, my nose, my mouth. I spat them out and screamed. Now, there were so many that every swing I made caught several of the insects against the wall, but it hardly made a difference, there were so many. I was standing, dancing wildly around the tight space, and I could hear the fly bodies bursting as I stepped on them, but still they were there. My stomach burned suddenly from lack of food, and I doubled over in pain. Tears spilled out of my eyes, and I dropped to my knees, feeling the squelch of dead flies. “All right,” I said. The flies slowed, and the buzzing quieted. “All right, all right.” The flies were gone. “I'll do it. I'll do whatever it is that you want me to do, just, please, let me out of here.” There was nothing, no boulder being moved away from the entrance, no child's voice calling down to me, only the dark, cold silence of the pit.
And then the chill intensified around my legs, and it was several seconds before I realized I was kneeling in water. The water was cold, and smooth, and felt like winter air wrapping around my thighs. Of course, there was the spring that fed the river that came down out of the peak of the Mountain, but it made no sense for it to break into the pit now. But then, nothing made sense on the Mountain, and the water was still there. I stood up, the water running in rivulets down my knees and back into the pool that had collected there. Remembering my backpack, which I didn't want to leave in that pit, I reached down to pick it up and instead slipped and fell face-first into the water. The shock of the cold knocked all the breath out of my lungs, and for a moment I was completely paralyzed, lying underwater. In that water, I could sense something, something below me, like I was out in the ocean looking at a shark passing by twenty feet down. I think I screamed, or opened my mouth to scream, because water was rushing down my throat and into my lungs. I lunged backwards and up, hacking and coughing to get the water out of me.
The floor dropped out from under me, and the sudden shift plunged me back into the water again. Water shot up my nostrils, and I flailed wildly, kicking my legs and pinwheeling my arms in a desperate attempt to rise back above the surface. When I did, I looked up and saw light. Not full light, not sunlight, but a color gray that was different than the blackness around me. The circle holding that grayness came closer to me, and I understood that the water level was rising, propelling me upward and outward. I braced myself to be shot out, like a cannon, crossing my arms up over my face, but there was no sudden burst. After some time had gone by and I wasn't flying through the air, I uncovered my face and opened my eyes.
I was sitting in the middle of a wide pool of water, completely calm. At one section of the rim of the pool, there was a gap, and water was flowing smoothly out of that gap and down. I knew what this place was. I had reached the peak of the Mountain at last. Up above me, the stars shone even more brilliantly than before, and now there were thousands of them. Every part of the sky was filled with stars, so close together I could barely make out the black space between them. I floundered towards the edge of the pool, coughing up water as I went. I hauled myself up out of the water and onto the flat rim, breathing heavily and just resting with my eyes closed. Above me, the stars glittered on from across the vast emptiness of the universe.

IX. Ritual

I awoke in whiteness. Everything around me was white. A cloud had drifted in over the peak while I slept, and now the watery chill was seeping into my clothes, still wet from my journey the night before. I couldn't see further than two feet away. My legs were shrouded in white, and my hand slowly disappeared into nothing as I pushed it further away, coming back into existence as I brought it closer to my face. Wisps of clouds floated around me, swirling in the air currents I made with arms. My mouth was dry, my tongue cracking as I bent it experimentally. I flipped over onto my stomach, not wanting to stand for fear that I would inadvertently wander over the edge and fall down a cliff, and crawled my way to the pool I had come out of the night before. It appeared so suddenly I nearly fell into it. As it was, I had to throw both hands out into the water to steady myself. The ripples made by my entrance floated away into the cloud and disappeared. I cupped my hands and dipped them in the water, letting the clear liquid flow into the makeshift bowl. Bringing my hands up to my mouth, I drank deeply. The water was so cool and clear and crisp it didn't feel as though I were drinking, but more like breathing, after being choked until blackness started to creep in on my vision I was breathing again. It was the most wonderful feeling of my life.
It was interrupted by another pang of hunger, so intense that I dropped the water I still held and clutched my stomach with both hands. I fell sideways and curled into a fetal position, gritting my teeth to keep from groaning. The feeling passed, and I was left breathing shallowly, trying to right myself. Somewhere in the cloud I heard a splash. I looked that way, but of course I could see nothing. I waited, thinking perhaps whatever made the noise, if it was an animate being and not a rock, would come near to where I was. It did. A Red Fish, also called Red Drum by restaurants, meandered towards me in lazy curves. Light glinted off its fins, off the black dot at the base of the tail, and I felt a hunger pain coming on me. Before I knew what I was doing, my hands lashed out and caught the fish between the clasping fingers. Its scales were slimy, and it wriggled fiercely, trying to escape. Usually trying to catch fish fails, as I can attest to with many years spent living on the beach. The dam things are hard to hold on to, and more often than not, they have some kind of spikes in their fins that stab you. But this one, even though it squirmed and thrashed, was mine, it was not going to escape. I had no knife, no fork, no fire to cook it, but I was so hungry.
Still thrashing, I put the fish up to my mouth and took a bite. Blood, or maybe it was water, gushed into my mouth, and the squirming redoubled, but still I held onto the fish. The scales and bones crunched in my mouth, and I hardly chewed before swallowing the lumpy flesh. It scraped the sides of my throat going down, but I didn't notice the pain, just took another bite, and another, and another, until the fish was gone. My hunger sated at last, I took another long drink, staring at my reflection in the pool. I did not recognize the strange man, the other me that looked back at me from out of the pool. His eyes were wild, his face scraggly with a beard that hadn't been shaved or tended to at all. He smiled. But I wasn't smiling. The other me leered at me, a malevolent light in his eyes that shook me. I was leaning out over the edge of the pool, and I almost fell in again, putting my hands out to stop myself as I had done before. But this time, when I tried to pull back, I couldn't. My hands were stuck fast to the bottom, because something was holding them there. The other me was holding me, and then he gave a tremendous jerk, and pulled me all the way into the water. The liquid closed up around me, filling my nose, my mouth, my ears, and I struggled, and all the while I could feel his hands wrapped around my wrists, pulling me down, down, down.
And then he was pulling me up. I came up out of the water, tasting salt, which shouldn't have been in a fresh water spring, and blinking in the harsh light of noon. The sun overhead burned down, a thousand times larger than normal, filling the entire sky with fire. I fell, spitting up water, onto the ground, and tried to understand where I was. I seemed to have been pulled out of a large stone bowl, made from the black stone with gold writing around the rim consisting only of two symbols, “Toh” and “Sigh,” which together mean “water.” It rested on a thick piece of wood, and standing in front of that was not the other me, but my father, Jackson Reed. He was no longer pale and bloated, as when he came to visit me in my dream, but was whole and full of life and vitality. His skin nearly glowed with youthful vigor. He held out a hand and helped me to my feet.
People were standing all around me, staring at me with wide, unblinking eyes. I recognized a face in the crowd, that of the fruit vendor woman who had given me advice. Confused, I waved to her, but she continued watching me without returning the gesture. It wasn't her, I realized, it just looked very much like her. Same eyes, same nose, but this woman's mouth was larger. Strange. Everyone was silent. A breeze blew up, a warm wind and I saw that I was still on the peak of the Mountain, but something was different. The area of ground to the west of the Mountain seemed more wild, and I couldn't make out any roads or houses that I thought might have been there. Pushing my way through the mass of people, I made my way to the eastern side of the rim, and looked out to the sea. The city was gone. Tropic Park, home to twenty thousand people, had disappeared entirely. Something was terribly wrong.
“Where am I?” I asked the people there. “What's going on?” But no one would answer me. I pushed my way back to where Jackson was standing, and repeated my questions to him.
“We've been waiting, Thomas,” he said. “We've been waiting for so long, but now you're here, and you can do this for us.”
“Do what for you? Why can't you do it?”
“I tried once before, and I failed. We need you to do this. You will do this.”
“Do what? What is it that you want me to do?”
“You know what you have to do.” All around me, the faces stared, their features hideously familiar to me. And then I realized why. I had seen these same noses, these same ears, eyes, mouths, watching me as I bought fruit and vegetables and meat from the vendors in the market of Tropic Park. These were the Ri-Zus. I knew it unequivocally. But why they were here, when their own traditions forbade them from coming to this point, I did not know or understand. Something was terribly wrong. “Go forth, my son.” Jackson pushed me forward towards the center of the bowl that was the peak. The crowd parted like the Red Sea, and all at once, I knew where I was, what was happening, why Tropic Park had disappeared, with the roads and houses around the Mountain, why the people here seemed so like the Ri-Zus but I couldn't make out a single face I knew. I understood it all, because at the center of the peak was a pit of molten rock, of magma, sunken a foot into the surface of the peak. The Mountain had not been an active volcano for three thousand years, but here it was, smoldering, bright orange streaks running through black and casting a sickly pall over all the gathered faces, bubbling and throwing up droplets of the magma that singed the air, casting shimmering waves up into the sky. I had somehow gone back, been pulled into a time when the volcano was still burning away, and the people around me were the ancestors of the Ri-Zus I knew, the small population size preserving the traits through the centuries to the forms I knew. And then someone spoke, and I knew that these were not the Ri-Zus, could not be.
A woman stepped forward out of the crowd across the pool of magma from me. She was dressed in a white robe with golden lettering around the cuffs, spelling out the words “Toh Sigh Cone Who Fu Lain Bay Lime,” “Water, Air, Fire, Earth,” that rippled and danced while she walked. She stepped down into the magma, which hissed with each footstep, and crossed to the center. Her face was even more maddeningly familiar than any of the others, and it screamed out to me that I should know her. She held a black bowl, with the same words inscribed on it in gold as were on her robe. It was like the bowl I had come out of, but was not exactly the same. She held the bowl up to the sky and said, “An offering of water to Vengeful FiRohZee. Drink of me, and you shall never thirst,” and then brought the bowl back down to the level of her waist. I saw that it contained water. These were not the Ri-Zus, they could not be. The Ri-Zus had forever worshiped Lo Bay, goddess of the water. I had been pulled into a crowd of Sih-Tos, in the midst of one of their mad rituals, and I was powerless to do anything but watch as it continued. Another woman stepped out onto the molten rock to stand at a right angle to the first woman. She was the twin of the first, with the same facial features, hair, and clothing. Her hands were cupped together, and she held them up high above the bowl. “An offering of earth,” she said, “to Vengeful FiRohZee. Eat of me, and you shall never hunger.” She opened the bottom of her hands and let fine sand fall into the bowl, which turned a murky brown. A third woman stepped forward, her hands at her sides, to stand across from the second woman. “An offering of air,” she said, “to Vengeful FiRohZee. Breath of me, and you shall never tire.” She bent over the bowl, put her hands to her mouth and blew into it, creating small waves on the water which broke on the side of the bowl with a quiet lapping sound. The mixture turned dark blue. A fourth woman came out to form a square of the women around the bowl. “An offering of fire,” she said, “to Vengeful FiRohZee. Feel of me, and you shall never die.” In her hand there burned a bright orange flame, which seemed to have no source whatsoever, only a hovering flame on the palm of her hand. She held it up to the sky, and then plunged her hand into the water. The surface of the potion caught fire like it was oil, and the four women each put their hands on the bowl and held it to the sky. Then they set it on the magma, where it sat, burning brightly.
There was a hand on my shoulder, and I turned to see Jackson. “Take the knife, my son.” He held out to me a black dagger, inlaid with gold. I didn't move. “Take the knife, my son,” he repeated. I looked into his eyes, which were far too large for his head, and saw myself reflected in them, the similarity between us impossible to miss, and wonderful. He was my father, and I loved him. I took the knife. All at once, the people around me began to chant softly, no louder than a murmur from one lover to another. I held the knife up to the sky, and the murmuring intensified, though I could still not make out individual words.
I stepped out onto the magma, feeling the heat burn into the soles of my shoes, hearing the rubber crack and melt. I took another step towards the bowl, and another, and another, until I was standing in the center, staring up at all the people gathered around. I wanted to ask “What do I do now?” but my tongue stuck in my mouth, and I remained silent. From behind the masses, I heard a cry, a little girl's cry. Chrysanthemum. I waited, and soon the crowd parted again, to let one of the robed women through, with Chrysanthemum in tow. They descended into the pit of magma, the priestess pulling on Chrysanthemum's arm. Chrysanthemum's hair was disheveled, and her clothes were torn and dirty, and she was resisting being dragged, but the priestess was stronger, and they came onto the magma. Chrysanthemum wasn't wearing shoes, and she began to scream, a high pitiful wail, as the molten rock came into contact with the soles of her feet.
The two came to where I was standing with the bowl and the dagger and stopped. I looked into the priestess's eyes and knew her. It was Sarah, the girl I had loved so long ago, a woman who was dead, but not dead. She was here, across from me, had been since the beginning. My tongue came loose, and I said, “Sarah. What are you doing here?” She stared into my eyes, and I saw my face reflected in her pupils. “We all have our part to play. This is mine, and you will do yours.” Sarah held Chrysanthemum up to the sky and said, “An offering of blood to the Vengeful FiRohZee.” She pushed Chrysanthemum down and jerked her head back over the bowl, exposing her neck. Chrysanthemum was sobbing now, tears streaming down her face and falling to the ground, where they evaporated in mid-flight. I looked her in the face, and saw that it was my face, and Sarah's face. Chrysanthemum was my daughter, the baby who would have been and was now and she was staring up at me, not seeing me but pleading all the same, for the life which had been denied her before by an accident of chance.
“I can't do this,” I said. “I can't. She's my daughter, I love her. I can't...” My voice trailed off into silence, and Sarah took my hand, the one holding the dagger. “You can do this. You must do this. You will do this.” She kissed me lightly on the forehead. “We all have our part to play. This is mine, and you will do yours.” And I knew it was true. This was my part to play. And I did it, carried it to completion, with brutal efficiency. I will not describe exactly the scene of how I killed my daughter, suffice to say that I did. It is my greatest regret and horror, in a life with more than its fair share of regrets and horrors, and when I close my eyes, I can still see her face watching me, pain and sorrow etched in every feature. That is why I have decided to end my own life, to take the coward's way out of suffering, for most transgressions can be made better, most wrongs made right, but this, this wound can never heal.
After the deed was done, Sarah let Chrysanthemum fall to the ground, where her body caught fire and sank into the magma and disappeared. The bowl, with the flames now extinguished, carried a dark red mixture. Sarah picked up the bowl and raised it to the sky once more. The chanting increased. “An offering, to the Vengeful FiRohZee!” She tipped the bowl over, spilling the liquid out onto the magma, where it boiled, throwing up a great plume of steam into our faces. I breathed in the vapor before I thought to stop myself, and at once began to cough and retch and the horrible stench. I fell to my knees, gagging, and the magma burned into my hands and my calves. The magma was like mud, and I was sinking down into it. It burned every part of my body, filling my mouth, my nose, my eyes, and burning everything away. I sunk further, down, down, down, down.

The blackness surrounded me again, and I was floating freely in the empty space where there was nothing at all. It didn't seem like I was rising or falling, but then, there was no reference point to tell, nothing I could see, no sense of air flowing past me, no ground beneath me or above me or to either side. I was nothing. I could not feel my hands, or my feet. I could not hear my heart beat in my ears or my breath flow through my mouth. I was nothing, nothing at all.
I waited in that state of nothingness for I don't know how long. There was no sense of time, it could have been a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a year, a thousand years, for all I knew. But I knew I was waiting. I didn't have thoughts in that place, where I was nothing, but I know now that I knew then that I was waiting for something. And then I sensed it, moving silently far away like a black dog running through a black forest in the dead of night, except it was larger than a dog, much larger, and more sinister. I waited, and the thing, the hulking thing neared me, until I could sense that it was looming over me. I couldn't see it, but I knew it was there.
“Thomas Reed,” it said, in a voice that I didn't hear but sensed, “you have done well.
“You have done what your father could not, nor his father before him, nor his father before him unto one hundred generations. You have completed the ceremony, and given me power, and for that I thank you. You have played your part to perfection.
“I am FiRohZee, the Devil of the Flame and All that Burns, and you have given me power. Long have I waited, entombed in this Mountain, for one such as you. All the others were too weak, too given over to their human sentiments to murder their daughters, but not you. You are stronger than they, and for that, I thank you.
“Three thousand years ago, my followers began a ritual that was to have given me power. It was the culmination of uncountable eons of effort, and it was nearly ruined by the people of the water. I nearly had everything in my grasp, when they ruined it, and broke my followers, and drove them to madness. They forgot everything and turned away from my path. But my suffering was avenged by YahSoFen, the Devil of the Water and All that Weeps, and those who cursed me were destroyed.
“But blood is stronger than water, and it called you, as it called your father and his father before him and his father before him unto one hundred generations. And you returned to the Mountain, to play your part, and you have done well, and for that I thank you. You may have anything you wish, now. Speak, and tell me your desire. I am all-powerful, and you may have anything. Speak, and it is yours.”
Feeling came back into me, starting at my mouth, and I was aware at once of my tongue pressing against my teeth, of the gentle curve of my front teeth, of the sharpness of my canines, and the firmness of the molars. I felt my lips pressed together, the dimple in the center and the way the dry skin stuck together. My mouth filled with spit, and I swallowed, letting the warm saliva drip down my throat and into my stomach. I blinked, and heard a squish as my eyelids pressed together. An eyelash caught in them, and I raised my hand to my face and rubbed the palm into my eye, trying to remove the lash. I blinked again. The back of my neck hurt.
“Speak. What is it that you want?”
“One plus one is two.”
My eyes burned.
“Two plus two is four.”
My ears began to ring.
“Four plus four is eight.
“I forgot who I was. When I came to this city, to this Mountain, I concentrated on my past and forgot the present. I am not my father, or my father's father, or my father's father's father one hundred times over. I never was, and I never will be. I am Thomas Reed. My father was Jackson Reed, a different person from me with different experiences and different thoughts and a different life. His father was Anderson Reed, with different experiences and different thoughts and a different life from either myself or my father. Jackson Reed was an archaeologist, who dealt with the past and the languages and the people long dead. I am a mathematician, and I deal with numbers and the connections between them. I forgot who I was, and in my madness I carried out your desires. But I am myself again, free from the madness and free from your clutches, and free from the evil that you inflict on this world. I have suffered too much, and I will play my part no more.”
FiRohZee began to laugh. “You presume much, Thomas Reed. Your part is done, I have need of you no more. I only offer you this from the goodness of my heart. It's for you, not for me, that I extend a helping hand now. But if you refuse it, so be it. That is your-”
“Eight plus eight is sixteen.”
“What are you doing?”
“Sixteen plus sixteen is thirty-two.”
“Stop. Stop it.”
“Thirty-two plus thirty two is sixty-four. Sixty-four plus sixty-four is one hundred twenty-eight.”
FiRohZee roared, but I continued: “One hundred twenty-eight plus one hundred twenty-eight is two hundred fifty-six. Two hundred fifty-six plus two hundred fifty-six is-” and I awoke at the foot of the Mountain, just as the sun was beginning to rise up over the horizon.

X. The End,
or The Beginning

I have come to understand something about Tropic Park: it is not a place of happy endings. I have heard various stories from the people here. I did not include them here, because this is my story, and those stories are not mine. I heard of Charlie Green, who was found face down in the sand with strange things growing out of him, and of Alexander King, whose family had to bury only his left arm, because that was all they found of him, and of many other people who have come and go in the unrelenting tide that surrounds Tropic Park. I have heard tell of children going missing, of animals born with too many legs, or too few, of lights seen in the night that circle and wheel through the ocean waters and sounds heard in the middle of the day that have no connection to anything at all. The Mountain has drawn us in, like flies to honey, and is waiting for us to sink into the sticky amber and drown, helpless. It is said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Not only have we forgotten the history of Tropic Park, we do not bother to even try to uncover it. Three thousand years ago, the Mountain was split in two. On one side was time as we know it, progressing in a linear stream onward with no gaps, skips, or derivations. On the other, a mob of hungry people waited in vain for someone to come to complete the ritual they began at that time, living a short circular loop that played over and over again until I arrived and carried out their wishes. Soon, very soon now that my role has been played to perfection, the two halves of one will join, and the city of Tropic Park will be buried underneath millennia of anger, pain, and suffering. And I do not want to be here when that happens.
The glass door out onto the balcony is open. I opened it when I came in, and I sat in the living room to write so that I could feel the breeze blow in. It is a cool wind, carrying fresh salt spray and the faintest scent of fish, and blueberries. Outside, the birds are calling to each other, and traffic is rumbling away on the causeway. The bridge is up right now, and a large ocean steamer is passing through, its deep bellowing horn sounding out once, twice, into Tropic Park's twelve o'clock hour. I wonder if I will be able to hear, to smell, to see, as I fall down towards the water. I have never been a religious man, but writing this, I am struck by the thought that I might go to Hell for my actions on the peak of the Mountain. When I face the tribunal in the darkest room, and they weigh my heart against the feather of truth, I can offer as my only defense that I was struck by madness. I cannot say that I was not in control of my actions, because I was, nor that I was forced to do it by the faces and arms around me, because I know that at that moment, I wanted to kill her. I wish now, in the light of lucidity, that I had never done it, that I had ignored my mother's orders and stayed free from the grip of Tropic Park, but I know I had no choice in that matter. Those who are not from Tropic Park can never stay, and those who are can never leave. All of the people here, Holly McBride, George Fallon, Harold Ipsies, Maria Skall, everyone who lives in Tropic Park and all the Sih-Tos on the Mountain, they all have some part to play in the things to come, the things that have not yet been decided. But my destiny has been reached, I found it on the top of the Mountain. We all have our part to play. That was mine, and theirs will come as well. My role in this story was overall a short and unimportant one, and now, it has come to an end.

***

The previous account was, again, found already compiled in Reed's condominium apartment. Under their own volition, a few members of the police force, most notably Officer George Fallon, investigated a few of the claims made by Thomas Reed. This was not ordered, nor condoned, nor even known by the commanding officers of the Tropic Park Police Department, but the results only further conclude that Reed was suffering from insanity. Under questioning, none of the Native Americans who live on Lonesome Mountain would attest to having seen Reed on the day he claims he climbed to the peak of the mountain. The boy, Jeffery Davis, who examined the library computer when Reed claimed to have seen the strange symbols on the screen, said that there were no such characters, only jagged green lines that usually accompany a crash like that. But perhaps the largest and most damning piece of verifiable evidence against Reed's sanity, (the majority of the wild images he described himself as seeing cannot be checked by outside sources) is the fact that Jonas Tyris III does not live in Tropic Park, and has not even seen the city in three years. After his father's death some months previous, Tyris had the boxes of artifacts moved directly from the uninhabited house to the museum, remaining in Miami, Florida, as he did so. The notes that Reed describes as being left by Jackson Reed have also been found. They have been collected here, and will be preserved, along with this document and the autopsy reports on both Jackson and Thomas Reed, as the only evidence collected in the investigation of the deaths of the two men. The investigation has since been closed.

***END OF ACCOUNT CASE NUMBER 2008-0441-A-B***

So, I finished!!!! Yay, me! I'm going to go buy a movie and pour myself a cup of Strawberry soda to celebrate. It's done, and it's the best one I ever wrote. Could be better, but it's still good. Sometimes I really freak myself out with what I write, though. Like, most of the stuff I put in here is something that I am deathly afraid of. Especially the part with the dog hanging in the shower. (Jon Reid, I hate you for telling me that story.) I'm still checking behind the shower curtain every time I go into the bathroom. It sucks. Also the mirror thing. I'm scared of that too. Thanks, Mom, for understandng. I love you. And thanks M, for being supportive, in your own twisted kind of way. Love you too.