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From Looking for Don:

Chapter 17


He’d been to the Moon Crater twice, about two, three years ago, both visits within two, three weeks of each other, the first one a hasty reconnaissance of the area with Tom, the last one while crammed into the back seat of a 1956 Opal Rekord of dubious ownership alongside Pepsi and Truck and Cindy’s girlfriend, the one whose name he couldn’t remember. Cindy’s Piney boyfriend of the moment drove, Cindy in the middle of the front bench seat wrapped around Piney boyfriend and Piney boyfriend’s slope-headed cousin sitting shotgun...Rebar, yeah, that was the cousin’s name. Why did he remember that and not Cindy’s girlfriend? And what was this motley collection of people doing in the back of an unregistered and probably stolen Opal careening through the Barrens?

Simple. He’d mentioned the earlier hasty reconnaissance to the Piney who’d grinned and said, “You really want to see it?”

He did. The place was legendary as party central replete with beach and Tom and he had gone out to chase down the rumors and got chased out by a large group of Pineys who took dim views of non-Piney incursions. Needed a Piney to get in and Cindy could supply one of those and off they went. Not that Butch could see very much of the approach because he had a very limited view out of the Opal’s windows, crushed as he was against Truck in a desperate effort to avoid physical contact with Cindy’s girlfriend (what the HELL was her name?) because, no thanks, and the whole interior was a fog bank of dope smoke anyway so his chances of finding the place now were nil, even though he had to be going in the right direction. That’s because there was no other direction. Once he dumped off 70, he was in the Barrens. Roads led in. Nothing led out. And everything looked exactly the same.

Need a Piney to show the way.

He chuckled and briefly considered heading over to Tabernacle and picking one up from the store. His luck, it’d be one of Pee Sea’s henchmen and he’d be directed to some lonely house out past Chatsworth and never seen again unless some hunter stepped through his rotted chest years from now. No, gonna have to figure this out on your own, although who knows how? He had few clear memories from the previous visits to rely on. The last one, they’d arrived after dark, the fog bank in the Rekord matched by the fog rising from the woods, the world outside and the one in his head grey and invisible. The Piney had yelled, “Here we go!” and the next thing Butch knew, the Rekord had gone over the edge of a fog-bound crater and plunged down a sheer 90-degree angle of sand and crap aiming for a fog-draped bottom of rocks and crap, the Piney stomping the accelerator to hasten their deaths. Everyone, including Butch, screamed as they fell/drove for the bottom, the Piney and Rebar in sheer joy, everyone else in terror. Somehow they didn’t pancake into metal scrap but, instead, raced across the bottom and up the far side fishtailing while throwing rivers of sand behind them and then vault over the edge and onto the plain.

Dune buggying, Piney style.

The Moon Crater wasn’t an actual crater. It was the remains of an old quarry, the far side given over to blue water and cliffs, the dune buggy side bare and dusty like the moon, hence the name. There was a wide lip all around it backed by woods with an actual beach running down to the blue hole, but the crater side was the sheer drop already experienced. And experienced, and experienced. They dune buggied at least six or seven more times before smoke pouring out of the hood and a horrific grinding noise from underneath forced them to stop. Once they had all fallen out and checked for injuries and discovered they were merely bruised and battered and not suffering from compound fractures, Piney and Rebar set to repairing the Rekord as the rest of them built a bonfire and danced all night and ran into the blue hole in their underwear and got into a stone mud fight. Spirits in the night.

Wouldn’t mind doing that again. If I can find the place.

He peered at the skinny asphalt road. Sandy trails intersected it every twenty yards or so, the terrain between covered with the skinny pine trees that gave the place its name. Bogs and quicksand and pestilent creeks ran right up to the asphalt and out the other side, thousand-year courses through sand woods and gullies and brakes and an impenetrable darkness that humans had yet to fully explore. No wonder this was a favored Mafia dumping ground. Few of the numerous bodies fertilizing the place were ever actually found, the yearly hunter or hiker or some hippie out here communing with nature taking that unfortunate chest step. Rarely, though, could they lead the cops back to it. The place was too eerie and bland and maze-like for all but those most experienced with its ways, like the hunters. Like the Pineys, who understood it, who loved it, a place haunted by legendary beasts, demons, and unsolved murder.

It was New Jersey’s soul.

That soul stirred in the trees and spilled down the sand roads, muttering as Butch cruised by. Joy fraught with peril, the future is sky wide dark and bleak star filled and forever, forever, storm clouds and grief and God, I call you, it is so great to be alive, so great, fearless, lost and I want to die now on some fast road in a fast car and eternal, I want to be eternal, and a shadow at the glance of an eye quick did you see me? Do you know me? The Barrens was caretaker, the shadow people flit in grey and tangle and the great Yawp is on the wind.

So different from Alabama, which was horror and sin and unpaid consequences. Different from Oklahoma, with its ghosts of murdered children on dust ridden swing sets and ghosts of Apache women singing mournfully in lost cemeteries. He’d felt that difference the moment he’d stepped off the Greyhound freezing and bleary eyed and shocked and heard the Yawp, the call from cedar creeks and marshes. The world is different here. Come find out.

And he had. Midnight runs to beach and boardwalk huddled by the pier as the fireworks arced overhead and the chill sea air braced and he shivered and pulled some girl closer. Sitting by Mirror Lake as the fog rolled in and the seven or eight of them hushed and listening to the witchery spinning about, spinning heavenward what if the world has ended and we are the only ones left and out in the fog someone calling “Help us, help us” and they all lean forward breathless and listening and we’re stoned, we’re stoned and they laugh and laugh. Or midnight in these sorcery woods Tom and he searching for the Leeds house and the Jersey Devil and swear something ran across the road just in front, just there, did you see it and they crowed their ecstasy and raised their voices to some Kinks song and you can be seventeen now and years from now and it’s all excess and limitless and the beach road and the swamp road and lakes road goes on forever.

I want to be seventeen forever.

Come be seventeen out here forever, scream the Yawp and party and ride motocross or swim the blue holes. Unrestrained bacchanal, as close to a witch’s orgy with attendant human sacrifice as could happen these days. Partiers ran giggling into some side brake and were never seen again, motorcycles hit inexplicable vines that were not there moments before and got tossed down ravines, and the blue holes turned into bottomless death traps for the drunk and stoned and otherwise unwary. It’s okay, okay, the attendant cost of being seventeen forever, raise a beer can and crow the Yawp for the lost brothers and sisters. The elder gods smile.

The Pineys know. The Pineys worship here, this is their church, and they whoop and call across sand and cedar waters, kneel by a blue hole and listen to the stillness as the bonfire climbs ever higher, drink and sing dirty songs and throw golden crowns and axes into bottomless waters, Yawp. The boundaries between heaven and hell, life and death, good and evil, thin. The answers were here to questions that shouldn’t be asked, but foolish mortals ask them and deep in black cedars a god with antlers as wide as the heavens snorts and glares and grins and stomps inexorably towards the petitioner. Butch petitioned as he drove: how do I get out of this mess, how do I get Don and Drewby and Mom and even Ridge out of this mess, and what should he do next if he should somehow manage to get out of this mess. Elder gods, answer me.

But first, he had to find them.

He didn’t recognize anything. It was like having fifty identical doors encircling the arena and having to pick the right one, the tiger or the princess. He wasn’t a Piney and had no genetic ability to discern the secret ways. The Piney boyfriend had driven easily and confidently straight out to the Moon Crater, laughing and drinking Pabst the whole time and running his hand up and down Cindy’s leg and Butch had been resentful and wondering if he was now required to kick Piney’s ass but no, he’d get left on some cedar berm trussed and ready for horned gods to feast. He had no totem, no golden crown thrown to sullen gods, and the Barrens regarded him with ill intent.

And then it didn’t.

A jolt of recognition, like walking down a street and realizing the guy approaching was an old elementary school pal. There was something about this particular curve of asphalt combined with the cancerous trees and angled sand that was instantly familiar and he coasted into a left hand turn and was in the sand, slipping and spraying and in danger of getting stuck in the berm but he regained control and set the wheels into older tire racks and was heading deeper into the brake, which closed up behind him, snickering. The road snaked right and left, hiding the straightaways but this was right, this was the way. As if to prove that, two Enduros suddenly burst out of the woods to his right, the two riders helmeted and goggled and face-masked and fishtailing alongside his front bumper staring back at him, exchanging looks and then wheeling straight into the woods. Angels of the Barrens. Butch paralleled them on the road, curving in and out of view but they remained the same distance and pace on a track through the pines. There was a dip then a sharp rise that Butch topped and the land opened.

And here he was.

The Enduros raced along the moon side and then cut up the far bank, lost to sight in the woods and then emerging on the beach side. People milled around three or four pickup trucks parked there and, as the Enduros slid up to the trucks, their riders pointed at Butch. The people all turned.

He didn’t hesitate.

Gunning it, Butch spun the back tires and careened all over the trail, straightening out at the last minute as the front of the car plunged over the crater’s edge, Butch screaming but not in terror, the joy, the joy! I’m seventeen! Fighting the wheel, he kept the Pontiac straight, jerking the wheel here and there to avoid first a boulder and then a rusted out car that didn’t make the run, bouncing hard and drifting too far in one direction and threatening to flip over, the bottom of the crater rushing up and then bam! the angle odd enough that he didn’t plow straight into the ground but bounced up and he gassed it and the tires caught and spun and threw up dirt and sand like an artillery smoke barrage and he was rushing across the floor, dodging boulders and bam! ramped up the opposite wall as he floored it and tossed the car right and left and right and left to gain traction and a path and he screamed and screamed as the front of the Pontiac cleared the lip and launched onto the beach side. Seventeen! Seventeen!

He was still screaming with absolute cowboy joy as hippies and Pineys all rushed him cheering and roaring the great Yawp and pounding the hood and ripping the door open and peeling him out and carrying him like a conquering hero to their campfire. “Oh, man!” “Out freakin’ standing!” “That was great!” “Thought you were going to lose it there a couple of times!” and he was dropped into a camp chair and a beer thrown in his hand as people pounded him on the back.

Dune buggying, Barrens style.

“Shit, you got balls on you the size of guavos!” shouted a hippy Piney wearing a tank top and jean shorts and shoulder length hair and an even longer moustache who dropped onto a stump opposite him. Butch was going to ask what a guavo was when the hippy, still laughing asked, “Is that your car?”

“My Mom’s.”

Everyone roared with laughter: the two Enduro racers who turned out to be 14-year-old blond twins, boy and a girl; hippy Piney; his old lady―the way she draped over HP he assumed it was his old lady―a long haired Joan Baez type; a very skinny hippie kid with Pete Townsend looks; a gigantic shouldered Viking-looking Piney who had to be a lumberjack; and a couple of girls and a couple of other boys and they were all Angels of the Barrens. This was the life of the haunted forest. These were the elves and sprites dancing at midnight in the moonlight, seventeen forever.

“Well, Mom’s gonna be shaking sand out of that thing for weeks!” HP concluded jovially and slapped Butch on the knee and gave him another beer. “Were you scared?”

“Out of my mind.”

More roars and someone gave him a grinder off the campfire and someone cranked up a boom box and it was Wishbone Ash and there were distant cheers and screams and Butch peered around the Dodge Ram behind him to see bathing-suited figures at the beach all jumping up and down and giving thumbs up. Butch raised his beer to them and they cheered more and the bonfire behind them suddenly leaped and some music too distant for him to quite make out wafted from the trees but the bathing suit people all began dancing. A dithyramb, pan pipes and goat people bleating. Yawp.

“Did you get banged up on the climb?” HP asked, leaning forward, a look of concern on his face.

Butch looked at him, puzzled. “No, why?”

“You look beat up.”

“Oh.” Butch gingerly touched his sore head. “No. That’s from something else.”

HP sat back, satisfied by that answer, and popped himself another beer. “So what you doing out here, soldier?”

“Airman. Just had to do it one last time before heading out.”

“Orders, huh?” HP nodded. “I get that.”

“You were in?”

“196th, baby.” And he slapped a tattoo on his shoulder that Butch could not quite make out. “Me and my brother here.” He nodded at the Viking, who nodded back, and Butch was going to ask if they were real brothers or Army brothers and decided it was irrelevant. “At Da Nang, 18 months. Left there in 71.” He spread expansive hands. “Been here ever since.”

“I guess they’ll send me to Vietnam,” Butch mused.

“Nah.” HP popped another beer and handed it to Butch. “It’s all over except the crying.”

Butch supposed that was true. Getting sent to Vietnam was a background terror he’d harbored ever since joining but it seemed more boogeyman than actuality. The real boogeymen were a lot closer, on the other side of the Barrens waiting for him to show up. Besides, they didn’t need weathermen in Vietnam. It was hot and rainy all the time.

“Ain’t this the best?” HP said as he curled back in his fold-up chair and closed his eyes and nodded to the music and downed his beer and popped another one and offered Butch another one but he waved it away. “No thanks, I’m driving.”

They all chuckled at that. “The way you came across, thought you were drunk already,” HP noted.

“Probably would have been easier.”

“So, get drunk and try it again.”

“No. Pushing my luck, I think.”

“I hear that.” HP went back to nodding. “So when you shipping out?”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

HP raised an eyebrow. “Maybe?”

“I got some stuff to do tonight. If it doesn’t work out…”

“You leave?”

Butch nodded.

“Ah man.” HP was sympathetic. “That sounds like a sad story needing to be told.” He waved the beer around. “We are a receptive bunch.”

Butch let out a long breath. “Things just don’t work out the way you think.”

HP and Viking and Joan Baez murmured agreement and hand slaps all the way around and they all settled in and the fire popped and the shadows lengthened and it was ten thousand years ago and the tribe had gathered after surviving the day to tell each other stories of fallen kings and thrown swords and jealous gods. Butch felt a thousand years old, and seventeen years old, at the same time. “I fucked up everything. And I don’t think there’s a way to fix it.”

The fire popped.

“I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. I didn’t protect some people. I was too scared. So people got hurt. I was a coward and ran and I’m still running. Still. All these people got hurt because I ran. I think my best friend got hurt. I mean, the only reason I’m wearing this monkey suit”―he flourished hands down his uniform―“is because I ran. I did bad things and didn’t man up to it. I thought only about myself and ran away and it leaves…” Butch had to think of the right word. “Bodies.”

“I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself,” Frank said.

Butch blinked. Frank was squatting by the fire, toasting a hot dog on a stick. The fire was bright because everything else had gone dark and shadowed. The pickup trucks and Enduros were still there, but HP and Viking and the twins were gone. The music was distant and unrecognizable now.

“I don’t think I’m being hard enough.”

“Hmm.” Frank nodded and tested the hot dog and then put it back in the fire. “You’re right. You should have killed your Dad like any self-respecting thirteen-year-old kid would have done. Without even thinking about it. I mean it’s not like it’s your Dad’s fault for acting like a jerk, it’s yours for not understanding the situation. You should have known months before, heck, years before, that your Dad was doing terrible things and you should have taken action when you were six or seven. I guess that means this is my fault, too.” And he pulled his jaw off his face, waggled it at Butch, then snapped it back in place.

“All right, all right.” Butch threw out palms. “It’s not all my fault, at least with Dad. And Cindy.” He swallowed. “But all this with April. Man, I should have seen that coming.”

“Yeah,” Frank nodded, “because when people say they love you they must mean it. Like mothers and sons.” He frowned at the hot dog and set it back in the flames.

“All right, fine, so it was a setup. Her or her Dad or both of them, I don’t know. But I should have known.”

“Yeah, ‘cause a guy desperate for someone to love him knows all the signs.”

Butch cocked an eyebrow. “Is that what I am?”

Frank snorted. “Please. You’re downright embarrassing.”

Butch looked at the beer and shook it and there were a couple of drops in it and he poured them out. “So what do I do?”

“Go save Don. Because that is your fault.” And he pointed the hot dog stick at him accusingly.

“So Don’s alive?”

“I dunno.” Frank pulled the hot dog off the stick and juggled it between his hands. “Ow ow ow!”

“So that means he is, right? ‘Cause all you dead people would know. Right?”

“You think we hold conventions or something?”

Butch tsked. “You know, you’ve got a real gift of sarcasm.”

“Comes from following you around.” Frank pulled his jaw to his chest, stuffed the hot dog inside the lower part, and then put it back and worked it with his hands to chew. Pieces kept falling out the hole in his cheek and he shoved them back inside.

Butch watched, fascinated. “Frank, why are you still here?”

“Wanted a hot dog,” he said, between chews.

“No, I mean, why haven’t you moved on?”

“Followed the light? Went up to the clouds? Passed this mortal veil? That?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Do you know how far it is?”


“No, you don’t.” Frank eyed him. “How big is the universe?”

“Pretty big.”

“You betcha pretty big.” Frank threw the stick on the fire. “Billions and billions and billions of light years. That’s just the universe itself. Getting to the end of the universe…” Frank made a ‘whew’ sound.

“Well, it’s not like you have to walk…” Butch blinked. “Do you?”

Frank made a wry face. “No one’s gotten there yet.”


“No one. It’s all physics, see. You can only travel the speed of light. That’s the universal constant for physical beings.”

“But you’re not a physical being.”

“I was born, wasn’t I? Anyways, that’s your top speed. And that’s only 6 trillion miles or so a year. The universe is billions and billions and BILLIONS of light years across. So the first human, let’s call him Adam, say he died 35,000 years ago. So he’s been traveling 6 trillion miles a year for 35,000 years. Do the math.”


“Let me summarize, then. Adam, the first guy to take a crack at Heaven, is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the way there.”


“And that.” Frank raised an emphatic finger. “Only if he’s heading in the right direction. Easy to get turned around out there.”

“But…” and Butch paused for an expected interruption. None. “But, that makes no sense. You die, you go to Heaven or Hell.”

“If you’re willing to make the trip.” Frank settled back near the fire.

“And…you’re not.”

Frank looked at him.

“You’re not planning on sleeping here tonight, are ya?” HP asked.

Butch started, confused, and looked around but Frank was not there and everyone else was. It was full on dark now, the fire as the only source of light, the sparks flying upwards and casting shadows and bright over the Angels and their chariots. “What time is it?”

“Night time,” HP said and stirred the fire. “If you wanna stay, it’s cool. We’re going skinny dipping at midnight.” And he winked broadly as Joan Baez slapped him playfully on the arm.

“No, thanks, but…I gotta be somewhere pretty soon.”

“How much leave you got?”

Butch furrowed a brow. “A couple of weeks, but that’s not it. Didn’t we already have this conversation?”

“No. Unless you were dreaming it. You passed out pretty quick after the third beer.”

Butch sighed. “Never could hold my liquor. Essentially, when I go and where I go depends on how the night goes.”

HP smiled and spread arms at the dark outside the fire. “Could go well. We’ve got food and beer and smoke. And music.” He nodded at one of the trucks. A boombox balanced on the bed, ELP blasting from it. Welcome back my friends, indeed. This show never ends.

Butch considered. What would be wrong with staying? No one knew he was here. Pee Sea couldn’t find him, neither could Professor. In the morning, he could drop off the Pontiac, wheedle a ride to McGuire to pick up the airport shuttle, and be gone. If he left everything alone, it would resolve itself. If he never came back, things would simply progress along their natural lines and life and time would go on, the show that never ends. And it wasn’t like this was the first time he had, with no prior notice or inkling, completely changed his life and locale, losing everything he loved and all of his friends, and things had worked out pretty well. He gained universes he did not have before. He could acquire new ones.

“Your friend can stay, too.” HP said as he threw another log on the fire.

“My friend?”

“Yeah. Guy sure loves hot dogs.” He chuckled at Joan Baez. “Hope we brought enough.”

A chill ran up Butch’s spine. “Where’d he go?”

The blonde twin girl pointed at the dark. “The woods. Guess he had to take a crap.” They all laughed at that. “What happened to his face?”
Blond twin boy asked.


Butch stood. “I gotta go.”

“Ah man, seriously?” HP looked genuinely hurt, which warmed Butch.

“Yeah. I’d like to stay.” Probably was in his best interest to stay. “But I really gotta go do something.”

“Okay.” HP shrugged. “You’re going to miss a helluva party.”

“Actually,” Butch re-tucked his blouse, “I’m going to a helluva party. Real killer.”

“Yeah?” Joan Baez was interested. “Where?”

“Clamshell. Merlin is playing.” In more ways than one, Butch supposed.

“Ah man!” HP jumped up excited. “I love those guys!”

“Come on by, then.” Butch headed towards the Pontiac.

“You dune-buggying out?” Viking asked as Butch started the car.

“No,” Butch said out the window. “I need to stay alive for the next couple of hours.”

“What about your pal?”

Butch paused, glanced at the tree line. “He’ll catch up.” And drove away.