Cotopaxi Mountain, Ecuador.
Nighttime . . .
Where the water that would drown me should be, there’s cracked and dry dirt, black soil, and bits of ash. Right at the place where I would be submerged in dark warm water, there is a decomposing cow, his ribs just starting to show through his torn and dehydrated body.
Where I would be swimming around looking for light, there are bodies. Everywhere bodies.
There are birds and rats and sheep and goats. There are horses and donkeys and dogs. This place is like the worst kind of pet cemetery you can imagine, times three.
All of the bodies have been put here after something extreme. But they all chose to come here. I don’t know why I know this, but I do. This is a dry lake full of death and dismembered bodies. And nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, is alive.
There isn’t a bug or a rat or a snake to be seen. No fastidious ants carrying off pieces of flesh ten times their body weight. No flies laying their larve. No worms slinking slimely around on their bellies.
Here, the chain of evolution is broken. Or at least, on hold.
Whatever killed these animals, it found some way of marking this place. In the same way that my tattoos ward off evil when I’m in Deadside, some invisible mark has been made warding off life. We’re the only living entities around. And I’m not so sure how long that’s going to last.
“What is this?” Ricky says, slowly, his words thick as oil, floating just in front of us.
None of us, not a one, wants to cross the boundary at the edge of the dry pond. We just stand there, some of us with our mouths hanging open. Others nervously unbuttoning the catch on their holsters . . . as if bullets would help anything.
Little Carlos is gazing into the body farm as if it’s just some interesting rock formation. As if all of this could be natural. One of those things he’ll understand when he’s older, wiser.
Ms. Josephine, she’s on the verge of tears, I think. See, she experiences places like this differently than the rest of us. With her, the experience is much more whole. More colorful. Every smell is amplified. Every flavor enhanced. Vivid cubed.
This is not Death Lite. No, this is a double-steroid-espresso shot of the macabre.
This slowly decaying dry bed of death, it’s warm. Too warm.
Does anyone feel that? I ask.
“Es muy caliente!” Little Carlos says gleefully.
Ms. Josephine holds the boy close to her side, keeping him from accidentally crossing the barrier that we all feel. “Where are all da carrion eaters?”
Ricky bends down, staring at the bright white circle his flashlight illuminates. “That’s an interesting question. There’s nothing. Where are all the bugs? There should be an entire ecosystem surviving off of these corpses. Even in the dirt . . . nothing.”
I have this feeling we need to leave this place, quickly. There’s something else around here, and it isn’t us. I don’t know exactly where it’s hiding, or when it’s coming back. But the answers are somewhere between nearby and soon.
“Mr. Green,” I say very clearly. “I would like you to take everyone back to the vehicles. They need to get checked-in to whatever hotel we’ll be staying at, and they need to stay there until first light.”
I hear the voices of protest, but I continue, “ . . . I will need either you or Juan to stay here with me, tonight. I’ll need the night-thermal goggles, and a sufficient supply of suitable weaponry.”
Mr. Green snaps some orders to Juan, and they begin gathering everyone. He turns to me, “Juan will stay with you. I have to stay with Mr. Chamberlain’s son.” Then he raises his voice, “Ricky, Ms. Josephine, let’s get this young lad out of here before we end up a part of this museum of death.”
Ricky doesn’t understand, “Dude, Jack, I’ll stay with you on this—”
No, Ricky. I have to do this one on my own. Besides, probably nothing is going to happen. I just need time to walk around this place. Feel it out. It’s a Deadside thing.
I put my hand on his shoulder as he starts to argue, but he quickly realizes the futility. “Fine, dude. But we’re out here first thing in the morning. And we’ll be monitoring you all night.”
Ms. Josephine comes up to me with Little Carlos playing around her legs, “You know what your up against, child. You need to listen to dis place. Let it tell you a story. It’s on a different frequency dan I ‘ear. Maybe you can see da silence dat I’m feelin’. What ’appened ‘ere is only da beginnin’ of somethin’. You be real careful dat you ain’t da next step.”
I hug her and whisper to her, “They’re coming back . . . you don’t have much time.”
She nods, looking down at Little Carlos. “Alright, let’s go back and get some dinner.”
“Este lugar,” Juan says in the background, “ . . . esta maldecido.”
This place is cursed.
23 seconds later . . .
And with that they fade into the darkness from where we came. I’m alone now, completely alone. So I just sit down on the edge of the place where I die. I’m waiting for the heat to overwhelm me.
It’s hot to the touch, the loose soil. And as yucky as this sounds, I kind of enjoy the tranquility of this dying place. There are no voices. No cars or trucks or horns or lights or yelling people, or any of the things that disappear into the background of our minds each and every day of our lives. None of the things that our brains have to filter out and ignore.
No . . . here, everything is being assimilated. Each and every tiny nuance is being fed into the system and interpreted by the many millions of sensors that evolution has endowed us with after millions of years of struggle and mutation. All of those fateful accidents that left us a bit more capable in our environments.
Every small piece of sensitivity or memory or feeling that we acquired while running from animals that wanted to eat us. With every child there is a new hope. A better version of you.
Faster, stronger, quicker.
Right now, I am in a transient evolutionary spot. Maybe I have evolved past the old me. But then, maybe I lost whatever gifts I originally possessed. Am I greater than human, or held back because of my inhumanity? Am I a more efficient machine after my memory was erased and my emotional slate cleaned? Or, perhaps, did I loose the perfect combination of substance and being when the lights went out?
It’s all for this. Everything comes to this place, at this moment. So I stand on the edge of this lifeless decomposing place of my worst nightmares and I wait for something . . . anything to push me just one fraction of an inch. Because then, there’s no turning back. It’s over, you see. No matter what happens, now, I’ll forever be changed by what follows.
Even if what follows is silence.
This place is just another one of my many tattoos. It’s now burnt into my soul as deep as any scar or bit of ink-filled skin. When I cross to the Land of Sorrows, this is where I’ll have to cross. From now on, I’ll drown in the choked death of this hot, stagnant place.
I feel something trying to push me forward, into the dead pool. It could be the wind, or my shifting balance . . . but it’s definitely something.
As I lean forward, half holding my breath for safety, I hear Juan, “No cruces, Yack. No cruces.”
Don’t cross, Jack. Don’t cross.
What he doesn’t seem to notices is, I already have.