Chapter 8: Squatters
We climb down ledges into a gully choked with thickets of thorny shrubs with fuzzy, gray leaves. I stay close enough to Sabonis’ heels to keep from being slapped as they spring back. We emerge onto another set of ledges clothed in low, thick scrub. After picking our way through crowd after crowd of floundering bodies, the place becomes abruptly and eerily vacant.
“Where is everybody?” I say.
“Cliffs block ’em,” says Sabonis. “Keeps ’em from coming up from the beach. Most folks go up the windward side. Where you came ashore.”
I crouch next to a small pool in a divot of bedrock, cup some water in my hands to drink. My reflection startles me. My hair is short and sticking up in places where dried algae crusts it like overdone hair gel. But my face looks like my sister Diane; maybe even prettier in chin and cheekbone, though Dan keeps the edge in the eye department. She really has dreamy eyes. Here I am, competing with my own sister over femininity.
“You’re a looker, alright,” says Sabonis, as though he’s telepathic, but anyone with a shred of intuition could tell what I was doing. “A little butch more my taste, but … I’d do you.”
“Pull anything funny, I’ll kick your ass.” I pull the overcoat tighter around myself.
“No worries,” says Sabonis. “Strictly business. You and me.”
We come over the top of a rise. The land plunges into a valley that cuts deeply into the massif. Two buttresses bracket the valley like the paws of a sphinx. The headwall soars through cloud to heights I can only imagine.
“I love this part of the mountain,” says Sabonis. “Smell that heather. Like sinsemilla and tea.”
I don’t smell a thing. Senses detach too easily from this new body of mine. I concentrate, tune my nose like it’s a short wave radio, and I can summon it. And just like that, like a distant station, it fades away.
We enter the valley, zigging around washes and zagging around cliffs, passing down through thicker and taller groves of trees. The opposite ridge looms higher as we plunge deep into the belly of the gulf.
On the way down, we come to a well-worn path that follows the same level contour.
“This way?” I say.
“Nu-uh,” says Sabonis, shaking his head. “That path is trouble.”
He ignores me, keeping his eyes fixed down the track, marring the pristine hillside like a scar. He scampers across and continues on down.
A creek races through the gulf in a series of cascades. Truck-sized boulders clog its bed. We cross, hopping stone to stone, and push our way through the dwarf willows lining the other side.
“Are we there yet?” I say.
“Told ya it was gonna be a haul.”
We climb the next ridge like ants up driftwood, following the grain of the mountain, going vertical only where the thorniest outcrops force us upward. We come again to a path, a shallow groove in the solid stone, polished by wear. I trace it around the indentation of the valley.
“Is this the same one?”
“Yup,” says Sabonis. He looks both ways before crossing as if he expects a bullet train.
“Where does this path go?” I asked.
“Circles the island,” says Sabonis. “Keep it movin.’”
I notice brown mounds like muddy haystacks in the lower part of the valley. Smoke seeps through their tops.
“Houses?” I say.
“Squatters,” says Sabonis. “Folks who want no part of the mountain.”
“Like half of Lethe,” says Sabonis.
Something large, black and bipedal scurries across a ledge. Sabonis stops abruptly. I back away.
“What was that?”
“Monkey, I think,” says Sabonis. “They’re fine by themselves. But watch out for the troops. They’re pretty aggressive.”
The black thing spots us, and flees into a crevice.
“That’s no monkey,” says Sabonis.
“What is it?”
“What?”“Ghost of a ghost. What you get when you grind a soul down to its nub, when you singe everything away but the core.”