BY FRANK T. SIKORA
Frank T. Sikora is a freelance graphic artist and writer in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Copyright is held by the author.
North Dakota, Beth laments as she opens the car door. Goddamn last-exit-before-hell North-get-me-out-of-here-before-I-choke-on-dust-and-dirt Dakota. Christ, help me. She sinks into her seat and watches her husband, Ian, and 11-year-old daughter, Jenny, walk to the center of an old, decommissioned Minuteman Missile launch silo, now buried beneath concrete, hard-packed dirt and a patch of burnt grass. Christ, it’s like a grill out here. Some vacation. Last year we went to Florida. Now that’s a vacation: Mickey you-gotta-love-the-Magic-Kingdom Mouse and cool screw-me-on-the-beach ocean breezes. Not this bullshit. Not fifty-miles-from-the-nearest-town bullshit; not 500-miles-from-the-nearest-body-of-water-and-a-thousand-miles-from-civilization bullshit.
She swipes her phone’s screen to her favourites and taps her sister’s, Holly, number. She waits for her to pick up. One ring. Three rings. Five rings. Seven rings. Holly, are you kidding me? Nine rings? Ever hear of voice mail? Come on. I bet she’s still in bed; must be nice. I should have married for money, too. Where has love gotten me? North Dakota. Her sister finally answers. “Jesus, Beth, I’m taking a bath.”
“You’re not the only one, Sis. I’m soaked to my skin,” Beth says. “My T-shirt. My jeans. My underwear. Everything. Nothing is dry. I stink of sweat, and the stupid plains are hotter than the desert. I wanted a tan. I didn’t want to be barbecued… Yes, Jenny’s covered. She’s wearing a hat and a bucket of sunscreen. Ian’s not a neglectful parent, just an odd one… Ten more days of this garbage… Jenny? Oh she loves this stuff. My beautiful little nerd loves science and all things geeky. Daddy’s little blonde shadow. She’ll follow Ian anywhere. Even here. ‘Fifteen days across the 47th parallel.’… Yes, you heard me. It’s a theme vacation. Yesterday, we visited Indian mounds. Yes, dead Indians buried beneath mounds of dirt. Good heavens. Listen… Let me finish, please. This morning he handed me a map of old missile sites. Yes, nuclear-let’s blow-up-the-Russians missile sites. I didn’t believe him. I thought it was a joke. Well, it’s not. Hey, hang on.”
Beth sets the phone on the car seat, grabs the map and fans herself. She picks up her water bottle, takes a long drink and slowly scans her surroundings. She sees a disquieting flat plain of brown grass bleeding to the horizon. A lone asphalt road cuts the expanse from north to south. The stillness of it all, the despairingly lack of noise—as if every living creature has fled a dying land—sends a shiver across the back of her neck.
Beth turns her sights back on Ian and Jenny; the two hold hands, standing together as still as the land surrounding them. She sets the bottle and map aside and picks up the phone. “My God, Sis, I can’t stand this place. I can see why they placed missiles out here. It’s so lonesome… Of course we’re the only visitors. Louder? Look, I’m talking as loud as I can. I can barely get a signal. What do you expect? It is empty as death out here.”
Beth drains the last of her water bottle and tosses it on the ground: “Fuck the environment,” she grumbles. She peers down the trail, a winding single-track path of roots and rock etching through the badlands of western North Dakota. Another day of merciless heat. Another day along the if-there-is-a-God-in-heaven-please-deliver-me-from-the 47th-parallel. Christ. She takes her phone and calls Ian. One day it’s missile silos and the next it’s a damn trek into the wilderness. What am I doing here? No answer, again. She calls Jenny. The same. Next her sister, Holly. Of course she picks up. “Holly, they’ve been gone for four hours. They went for a hike. Yes, a hike. This is the same man who drives to the fucking mailbox to get the morning paper. This morning he pulls out a backpack from the trunk and says we’re going for a walk. Fuck the walk, I said. I don’t exercise. I keep trim the old fashion way—I throw up after every meal… No, he didn’t laugh. The point is he took Jenny on a hike. ‘Three miles,’ he said. I told him he’s not taking our daughter out into the wilderness. She’s too young. Plus, I told him this is rattlesnake country. He just laughed. Why this trail? I asked. Why this park? More missiles? He handed me another printout. ‘It’s a geological map,’ he said. ‘We’re in the middle of a great ocean. It’s been dead for millions of years, but Jenny needs to see it. She needs to know.’ Know what? Of course, he didn’t say. He shrugged and said, ‘I wish you’d come with us. You may enjoy it. Perhaps, you might widen your narrow view of the world.’… No, I don’t know what he meant. My beloved, enigmatic as usual… I should have gone with them. Oh, Holly, they’ve been gone four hours. Yes, I called the park ranger. He’s coming out now. I’ve walked up and down this path all afternoon. Maybe they’re lost. Maybe they’re hurt. Maybe he did something crazy. Oh, Holly, what’s putting our baby through?”
Beth watches the helicopter descend into the valley. Behind her, three park rangers stand next to their ATVs studying maps. To her right, an older man, near 50, a search and rescue volunteer, stands at the ledge, drinking coffee. He catches her watching him and motions her to back away from the ledge. Beth’s body shakes from fatigue. She steps back and pulls out her phone and calls her sister. Her sister answers on the first ring.
“Jenny’s safe,” Beth says. “Two days in the goddamn wild. We found her this morning. They’re taking her back to the hospital for a check-up. She looks okay–a mild case of exposure and what I guess is a whole lot of Daddy-left-me-out-in-the-damned-desert-thank-you-very-much-for-abandoning-me damage. She’ll be stretched out on a shrink’s couch for twenty years… No, she couldn’t really say what happened to Ian. I mean. Christ, I don’t know. Listen, I’m trying to tell you. Jenny said he just walked into the air and vanished…No, she didn’t say he fell… I don’t know. Of course, everyone suspects he either jumped or fell off the cliff. But they haven’t found him or his body. Jenny said he vanished two days ago, not long after they left for their hike. She said she got scared and became lost. I asked her if Daddy said anything before his little walk. She didn’t answer, but I know he said something. He took her out here for a reason. He showed her the damned valley for a reason. He did all this for a reason… Yeah, maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m expecting rationality from an irrational mind.”
Beth slips the phone back into her pocket. She glances back at the rangers. They wave. She smiles, waves back, and thinks, It’s all so easy, isn’t it? A man walks out into the wilderness and drops off the ledge. A depressed man does crazy things they say. Some men run. Other men hurt themselves. But Ian wasn’t depressed. He wasn’t inward. His mind looked outward. To Ian, the world was too interesting. The universe was uncompromisingly large—‘with enough mysteries to carry one through a thousand lifetimes.’ Besides, if you’re simply going to run away from your family, you don’t take your daughter out into the wilderness and pull out your magic act.
She steps back toward the ledge, inching her feet forward until her toes hang out over the precipice. An unexpected thought occurs to her, like a burst of heat lightning on a cool, calm summer night. Jenny’s not only scared, she’s carrying a secret she’s afraid to share—a truth too difficult to hold.
Two months later, Beth and Jenny look out over the valley where Ian had disappeared. Each shoulders a backpack with sufficient weather gear and provisions for three days. They carry trail maps and GPS watches. They both wear light jackets. A cold front moved in during the morning, carrying a hint of fall.
“Well, we’re here,” Beth says. “Are you finally going to tell me what’s going on? What happened to your father?”
Jenny kicks at a stone, reaches into her pant pocket, pulls out her cell phone, and punches in her security code. She hands the phone to Beth. “Hit voice mail,” Jenny says.
Beth takes the phone from her daughter. Jenny’s face is ashen; her eyes stare out over the valley. “Why?” Beth asks, but she doesn’t wait for an answer. She hits the voice mail icon.
“Hello, Beth. It’s Ian. Don’t be scared. Don’t hit call back. You won’t get through. Just look out at the valley below, and then look out to the horizon. What do you see? I know. One big ol’ nothing, an empty expanse. You are looking at the remains of a once great sea—a sea long dead. For millions of years, it covered most of what is now North America. It was a shallow sea, not more than a hundred feet deep. In this sea, millions upon millions of life forms flourished for millions upon millions of years. Now they are gone. Gone. Some died out peacefully, as if they knew and accepted their time was limited. Others died violently, fighting for every breath, but they died just the same.
“And so will we. I’ve seen it before: cities thrown into oblivion by earthquakes and fires. Whole populations gashed by disease. Families annihilated by genocide. Why build cities? Why raise children? Survive and flourish for millions and years and then perish in a storm of iron and nickel from the heavens. Why do we do it? For love? For family? For God? For ourselves? Does it matter? No.
“I thought I was a strong man, Beth. But during my time with you and since the birth of Jenny, I have discovered I cannot bear the weight of entropy. I cannot bear watching you and Jenny age knowing it is worth nothing, knowing all you will suffer and endure is for nothing. I thought my heart was colder. I didn’t realize I had this capacity to feel so deeply. To love is not my nature, or so I thought.
“I am sorry. In many ways, this is a lovely world. Please trust me. It was hard to say goodbye. I almost took Jenny with me, but I couldn’t hurt you any more than I have. I am not cruel, perhaps a bit selfish and definitely self-absorbed. I will miss you, Beth. It’s been an interesting ride for me and hopefully for you. Perhaps we will meet again.” He laughs. “But I doubt it. Later, Babe. I’m out of here.”
Shaking, Beth looks out over the valley. Unlike Ian, she doesn’t see an ocean. She doesn’t see the destruction of cites. She doesn’t hear the cries of millions of long-dead, species. She sees a desolate valley drawing out toward a jagged, brown horizon—a harsh, lonely landscape best left undisturbed, not a refuge for cowardly husbands deserting their wives and daughters.
Beth reaches out to Jenny and cradles the back of her neck. “Baby,” she says to Jenny, “when did he leave this message?”
“Last week. It just showed up. He wanted us here so you could understand. He said…” Jenny looks forward, eyes locked on an unknown and vacant point. She pulls her backpack’s straps. “You didn’t believe me. No one believed me when he left. You don’t believe me now. It’s true. He walked off the edge. Right around here.”
“Honey, they never found the body. They looked…”
“I’m not lying,” Jenny says softly, slapping away her mother’s hand. “He told me. He showed me…the way…out.”
Beth takes Jenny’s hand again, and pulls her daughter closer. For a moment, Jenny struggles before giving way and tucking herself close to her mom. Morning light bathes the land in soft, warm tones. Just below them and to the southeast, two Ospreys circle each and ride the thermals. Above her, a jet’s contrail divides the sky. “He showed you the way out?” Beth whispers. “Where?”
“Yes, to home,” Jenny says softly, “His home. Another world, like ours. That’s what he said. Honest.”
“Okay, sweetie. Okay. I understand. You know, honey, I should have been there with you, Honey. I’m sorry.” Beth pauses. “You know, I bet he’ll come back. He’ll miss us.”
“Maybe,” Jenny says.
Beth doesn’t have to look to know tears are rolling down Jenny’s cheeks. Beth looks out over the edge one more time. She tries to imagine Ian walking out into the air, as if there were a walkway or door leading…where? Another world? She shakes her head at the idea. Ludicrous, she decides. I’ve spent too much time out in this forsaken place. Heavens. North “Discover the Spirit” Dakota. Nice state slogan. Right. More like “Discover the Crazy.”
“Jenny, let’s say you and I make a pact. Let’s say we never come back to North Dakota, okay? What do you think of heading home, packing up and going down to Aunt Holly’s in Florida for a spell?”
Jenny squeezes Beth’s hand. Before Beth can say how much she loves her, Jenny breaks away and begins walking down the trail. Beth follows, staying a few steps behind, not wanting Jenny to see the tears now welling in her eyes. When the path enters a switchback down a short but steep rocky hill, Jenny’s pace quickens. Jenny easily sidesteps the rocks and roots. Beth falls behind and soon finds herself a good 25 yards distant. At the bottom of the hill, the path enters a thick patch of Scotch pine and maple oak. At this point Jenny begins running, then running hard, her thin frame slipping in and out of the shadows, her steps landing without a sound. Beth drops her pack and sprints after her, arms pumping, heart pounding, determined not to let her get away.