Paramedics and scrub nurses are at this very moment lifting excised organs from donors on the thirteen surgery floors of this hospital, soon to be placed in coolers for steeping in an amniotic slush that will help preserve them for the long road trip.
On a lower level, the basement carpark of the hospital, a sleep-wary woman has arrived before anybody else and she lights a cigarette. She leans against a pillar opposite the elevators where those nurses and paramedics will soon come streaming out with coolers in tow. She settles into looking unavailable and occupied. It isn’t necessary to know what kid, mother, father, which total nobody these organs once comprised or what nighttime crisis called the surgeons to the operating table and compelled her trip across America tonight. There’s no drag to eliminate when you never let it cling in the first place. This is only a moment, and the moment will soon pass.
The elevator chimes. Its doors open. Everyone’s quickly falling to the task of stacking coolers across the backseats of a legion of cars that have been idling, waiting for their cargo and drivers. They pack them in like oblong luggage, less delicately than you might expect, stacking the kidneys standing up, squeezing in a heart where they can. A lot going out tonight. It all has to fit and there’s only so much space in these compacts to work with. Down the line they go loading each car, leaving the keys and a pen-marked road map in the passenger seat before moving onto the next.
With the first of the fleet ready and waiting on its driver, she extinguishes her cigarette with the heel of her boot and moves ahead. All around her is a dance of headlights and shadows, of thudding doors and hurried orders, of other on-call drivers trudging back to their haunts like ghosts, of helping hands each hoping to make the implausible just a little more obtainable tonight, of all nights, please, please. She soars past all of this along a benign comet’s trajectory through a busy solar system, ignorant to the collisions that never take place, unphased by disaster, by all of it. Take it as the value of her inertia, the absence of impacts for proof that you arrive anywhere at any moment of your life only by acts of graceful momentum. She is a constant hurdling through an uncertain ballet that she can’t believe in but is nevertheless a part of. She is a driver arriving at this car because she goes on.
Her reflection glides through the chrome of the car’s interior as she takes the driver’s seat and closes the door. The itinerary for this vehicle is already planned and written on the folded map on the passenger’s seat as a series of marked highways, specific turns, no stops, one exact destination. Tonight, it’s a coast-to-coast trip, to be made in record breaking time, with a hectic, winding and baffling excursion through the MIDDLE-DISTANCE. Most navigational bearings would never take you through that sliver of twilit territory and if ever crossing the Middle-Distance became a time saving factor, the tendency was to eat the cost and go the long way around.
But as a matter of geography and closing distance, the route is efficient. She can determine no fault of logic as she studies every merger and shortcut running reverse along the map, all the way to its origin and five-letter designation, route JUNTA. That’s fine. Tonight, she can be Junta on a flagship voyage with a cargo of cooling organs, passing through but to inevitably arrive somewhere on the other side.
An East Oregon surgery ward is an intangible image in her mind that only her arrival will make solid; a vague and unformed image the long night travel ahead threatens to steadily obscure mile by mile until Junta completely forgets why it is she’s driving, why this and not anything else. A long trip like this, though necessary to make a living, and for the lives of others, is an endurance run, a bout with protracted uncertainty that only by reaching her destination does Junta ever feel requited, like she isn’t just some mad woman prone to all-night trips with a stack of leaky coolers in the back. Her credentials, the tabs on the car, her assignment and destination, yes, Officer, my registration even, and those organs, are all very much real.
But those organs are here in bad faith. They whisper behind Junta’s back about a plot to slowly let themselves die off. They’ve lost it. Severed from the living rhythm of their warm host bodies and now it’s dark, cold… is this how it is to end, if it hasn’t already? So be it, some are content to think.
And Junta worries, what if it (the non-specific it, too much to account for) what if it all catches up to her? Because when it does—an obliterating thought—it will hit me all at once.
But for now, and for a little while longer, her sanctuary will be buttressed by the factors of time and distance.
Junta drives away from horizons starting to show signs of a world quickly ending in creeping ice, stratigraphically razed, peeling away fleeting human factors, discarded souls escaping their taxing bondage moving, not upward, but across (she watches) latitude and longitude, sent, seeking, disappearing into a bottomless cartoon hole… that Middle-Distance.
The compact she’s riding in groans until it is a monster fastened painfully to a metal, 18-wheel chassis. There is no cargo precious enough to justify this thing’s existence. Looking in one of her side-mirrors Junta can see the rig isn’t steel; it is comprised of bone and reeking meat. Two skeletal arms originate from the cramped space behind the cab she sits in, stretching outward to cover the highway’s span. While she drives, they swat at the sky as though attacked, swinging through clouds of exhaust whose whorls shape into the confusion of a bat swarm, past which these hands grope at a sun that’s fading from bleached-spine yellow to a dying rust red. If the rig she’s hauling is truly living, it seems to be rapidly choking to death.
Four hippie kids and their talking dog barrel down the highway in a stylish green van and match pace beside the abomination. They gawk at her up in her high cab and offer speculations about what a small lady with a look like hers is doing hauling a rig like that.
“Doesn’t it suggest some misunderstanding,” Scooby Doo is first to posit. “It’s obvious, she was never meant for this specific haul! Look to her hands, much too small—the fingers disappear in their journey ‘round the circumference of that wheel. Another victim of the screwball chimps back at dispatch if you ask me.”
“Zoinks, talk about a need for new management,” cautious Shaggy, knowing he’s about to ask a stupid question, “but, ah, you don’t mean real monkeys, do you, Scoob?” Up in the cab, it looks like Junta’s really losing it. She starts grabbing at every knob and switch in the cab, finds a dangling pull cord, pulls it hard and the rig lets blow a megalithic scream. It’s a fine excuse for everyone to ignore Shaggy proper but it is also just terrifying.
“Doesn’t look like she knows what she’s doing. You think she’s licensed for a haul that big?” Daphne looks to Fred for a response, who is locked in a deep motorist’s focus, and his attention won’t be diverted from the challenge of setting pace just out of the range of those sweeping arms.
“There’s really no way you could pilot a machine like that if you weren’t trained for it,” Velma interjects, brandishing, like always, her rational mind against the cartoon logic of a bizarre universe. “Those can’t be moving on their own, clearly there’s a complex mechanism at work.”
But Fred is familiar with Junta’s condition here. He furls his brow while his eyes scan an interior distance for an explanation he can offer. “It’s a sort of long-distance, big-haul madness. These roads can do that to you. I know it because I’ve contracted it before.”
Daphne’s intense curiosity for the mad trucker then transforms into concern, flying from her heart to Fred. “But how can that be true if,” reaching for his shoulder, she hesitates. Vulnerability, Daphne knew, doesn’t look like this in Fred. Wounded and suddenly disoriented, imagining other drivers from his past looking at him the way she was looking at that horrible woman, she insists, “you never told me Freddy!” But that forward and undeterred gaze, the look of a captain whose destined lot is to navigate so that no one else must is telling her to let Fred have his mysteries.
“Just don’t look at it too long, gang. It’s not safe, and the only cure is to arrive someplace. Let’s just hope she makes it and there’s someone waiting for her when she does.”
Shaggy screams, “Fred, watch out,” but he’s entered a slow banking trajectory around the obstacle ahead. Junta, however, inside the monster rig, is gunning straight toward an abyssal hole planted across the highway with no sign of stopping. The gang cover their ears as Junta tugs the pull cord again and the rig starts screaming its head off as it disappears, cab first into the hole Fred has pulled off the road to avoid. Desperate, like vestigial wings in a terminal free fall, the skeletal hands grab at the edge of the hole to hang on, losing bits of white bone on impact.
It manages to hang on long enough for the gang to recompose, get out of the mystery machine and walk a little forward together, where they can watch the tail-end of the rig and those hands slide away into darkness.
It’s a silent desert highway moment, before Shaggy says what everyone’s thinking. “Shit, Scoob. Shit.” The noises of strained bone giving out accompanies a laugh track in the distant clouds, like thunder.
Junta’s car crashes through the backdrop and comes to a sputtering, smoky halt after nearly a mile of chaotic careening and skid marks so dark they seemed to be pure absence peering through tears in the material world. The ordeal is taxing and enough to knock Junta unconscious. Sprawled across the steering wheel, she dreams about something these car rides keep her far away from.
She is walking through some stretch of interstate desert with Anna, tracking the motions of a slow-moving shooting star in the night sky above them. Only Junta seems to notice or care about the comet. She walks ahead of Anna as navigator, eyes on the slow burning rock above, wandering through the desert in erratic loops, sometimes doubling-back when it decides to do that. The comet travels through satellites, space trash and stars, combining its immense heat with their own in fiery collisions, expending their brightness and blinking out forever, carrying on and leaving them in its destructive wake. But that has nothing to do with Anna and Junta.
Junta loves Anna but is so overwhelmed by that feeling, she can’t bear to hear her begging that she stop wandering and just face it:
“Don’t you see,” Anna pleaded, “don’t you feel that we have something here?”
Have something? “Something like what,” Junta bites off without looking at Anna. Stars going out above them only she notices. “Your task in these dreams,” she whispers mostly to herself, “is often to pens—”
“—something together, Junta”
And here the comet, like a flick of a fairy’s magic wand, dips its arcing toward the Earth and heads their way. It moves too quickly for Junta and for a moment she is disoriented. Where did it go? And then, ah, a growing light, not rising from the East, but descending behind Junta out of the Northern sky. She turns around and Anna is silhouetted in the approaching light, but her own features, Junta realizes, Anna can see clear as day. She wears the terror of knowing this burning light will pass through them non-stop, because what little mass their togetherness might comprise is not enough to be its terminus. They are merely points along an arc that this something will sweep through, to obliterate or to gather and carry them away forever.
Junta feels the prickling of tears well within her face but there can be no damp regret or sorrow, no time to feel terror in this burning intensity. Took too long and now it’s too late. There was never enough.
The silhouetted Anna stands patient, holding Junta’s gaze. She doesn’t notice or care about the comet; cares only for the person they love who has at last stopped and now seems ready to face them. Wavering in the heat-light, Anna tells Junta “you deserved more,” and is then completely absorbed.
Junta knows there is always the danger of being absent for stellar occurrences like this. Blink and you miss it, a light a little brighter, a little less. She doesn’t miss it; for at least this star, she is there to witness its last moment. She doesn’t dream about the rest. Mostly to herself, she whispers “I do.”
Her eyes are already scanning 15 seconds into the future, hands locked at ten and two, spine supporting her as the brochure example of great driving posture when she realizes the dream is over. It happens like a jump cut, stitching there to here and then to now. Junta can’t remember waking up.
Headlights barely cut the fog that surrounds Junta’s car, adding a thicker bleariness to her already bleary vision. The radiator hisses, trickling and snapping from the violent careening. She feels a cool liquid pooled in the well of the driver’s seat, seeping through the soles of her boots. And something else, out there, a gothic secret sequestered in tendrils of this swirling mist wails and wails. In her stupor, this all amounts to a question for her eyes, her ears, her skin, about where she is and where she isn’t.
She asks, probing her senses for an impression, where am I?
And they tell her, you are right here, Junta. But they can’t tell her why.
The wreck has upset the organ coolers’ neat organization, and some have flown forward onto the middle console and passenger seat. A few have even cracked open and spilled their contents about the car. A half-kidney on the dash, paddling in a little pooled body of amniotic fluid like a canoe with only one oar, rudders closer to the sloping edge, catches Junta’s wandering eye and pleads for rescue. She doesn’t reach out to help it but it isn’t like she’s reeling either; the kidney slops down and away into the unseen space beneath the seat, escaping Junta’s curious gaze. Straining to lean across the center console, still fastened by her seatbelt, she stares and can’t help but wonder, where did it go? She wants to find out, so she gets herself unbuckled and now she’s free to wander.
Junta exits the vehicle and walks around to the other side, her soles trailing wet impressions on the asphalt road as she does. Three coolers have managed to spill outside the car entirely, tumbling out the passenger door, which somehow opened during the commotion, where they lay scattered and gaping. Inside, the organs are missing and, orphaned like that, the coolers just look confused laying alone in the middle of the road. But Junta’s just projecting here.
She doesn’t realize, can no longer remember that these coolers and their absent organs, are the reason she is out here in the Middle-Distance. Their sad affair is her own, but, blessedly, she’s been out too long to recognize that. In Junta’s state, everything out here is just as it is, configurable. Her shored-up sympathy pulls them into the intimate context of her orbit and to her they become something sad, lonely, hopeful or ruined. But these are just things she finds along the road.
In the high beam light up ahead, something fluttery catches Junta’s attention, and, like a child slipped away from their parent’s guiding reason, she floats along abandoning one distraction for another and discovers a folded road map. Ink from the markings meant to guide Junta through the Middle-Distance hasn’t run yet, despite it being a little drippy. That doesn’t hold her attention, however. What does are the drops, the exploded shape they perfected and always seem to make when they hit the ground, much like her own cross-hatched boot print behind her, and the damp trail of insteps embarking from the wreckage and Junta along the cracked road, into the mist and wailing night up ahead.
Jeepers. What have I forgotten? Was I riding with a passenger tonight, and where have they gone? Ahead into… Full moon territory, gallows-woods, dragged acres for dead crops to gather. Junta sets out. She follows the tracks of a person she can’t remember, compelled forward by the possibility toward another who she thinks is somewhere out there, lost, missing, need to find them. That wailing.
Her running takes her farther in, miles offroad, through bramble and hidden ditches, scrambling over cattle fences into a vast moonlit field of mud. It’s a sea of undisturbed lunar vanity, except the path Junta’s mystery has walked; except the pocks of coyote prints circling the last craterous blemish, a driverless flatbed truck, high beams almost smothered as the whole thing, including its cargo, an actual living suit of armor, a Black Knight, wailing in lonesome panic, hunched, and interred in stocks, is slowly being swallowed by the muck. The coyotes’ mirrored-eyes signal their blinking patience, waiting for the truck to lower to ankle-nipping height before going in. When they peel away poor Knight’s breastplate what do they expect to find, what substance in this third or maybe fourth packfeast, but the same empty expanse to entice their gibbering jowls as the miles they’ve already trekked and will continue to, still hungry and still compelled, forward, forever and on.
Stepping into tracks left by her forgotten passenger at the outset of the circling pack, Junta stops to view the desperate scene from the same vantage. Stellar and meditative, distant and indifferent. But what a strange sight, she thinks before turning away. Soon, she follows tracks to where the field heaves skyward, where the moon hangs and showers light upon a large building, waiting in monochrome. Onward through terrain where a road map isn’t useful, but she keeps it in her pocket anyway.
Boss got hurt on the job.
I don’t know how serious it is because I’m no doctor, but I worry. Ub’s too scared out of his wits to tell me what he thinks and he always tells me what he thinks even when I don’t ask for it and I keep asking for it but he won’t tell me. Boss won’t stop moaning “My head, oh” but there’s no light in the van and I can’t see, so all I can do is try to soothe him, but that’s not helping. My hands are wet from touching his face where the ladder swung and hit him. Boss doesn’t cry, says he never does, ever in my life! but I hope this is tears, and I know Boss can cry. It’s okay to cry, Boss.
Ub cut the wires out back at the museum and when he came around to tell us that all was done, he screamed at what he saw, what already had me and Boss stuck in fright. I turned so fast. Oh, Boss, forgive me, I wasn’t thinking like you always say. After that I dropped the ladder. Then I saw Ub running as if he was to try and tackle the ghost. I did wonder if that would work, if you could just deck a walking shadow. And I guess I started thinking like Boss, like if he got it pinned down, then what’s the next step and the one after that, but Ub just wanted to get the hell away from it and somewhere safe. Ub’s already prone to night terrors, so my heart goes out to him, but he sure dipped like a real fink leaping in the van and shutting us out. Had to schlep Boss all by myself, and Boss is a real heavy guy.
Which means I spent more time exposed to that thing than I’d like. Boss and I, we saw it as it made its approach, weren’t caught off guard like Ub was. We saw it come out of the night, across that muddy field leaving deep imprints in the earth—heavy ones, heavier than it should’ve been making—walking slowly, like it was just learning how to or something. First, we thought it was a guard and figured the jig was up but then we saw how little there was to see about it. Nothing but silhouette, no features, no sounds except each step was drenched like it is when you climb out a pool. But it’s a dry night, and I doubt this thing can swim, its walk being as uncoordinated as it was.
It was slow, never really got that close and I don’t know what it would do if it did. There wasn’t time to go back for the ladder after getting Boss in the van and maybe that’s all the better. He doesn’t see what hit him so soon. Neither I nor Ub, or Boss in his condition, can remember what roads we took to get out here, so we’re stuck. And Ub’s crying, we need an idea we need a plan, and the only idea I have goes No, it’s worse than that. Not stuck but trapped. And Boss always barks, leave the planning to me. Because I’m no good, I could never. So, I tell myself a story no one can hear because I can get away with it. And the story goes, for now, we abide by listening for signs that the haunting is over; silent as its passing is underneath the chattering of Ub’s wind-up teeth. And how, tonight the wind is wailing.
But Junta knows that wailing’s not the wind and what it means when it dissipates into yipping echoes and howling, way back across the field. Now she moves in muddy boots on the concrete path leading up to a multi-storied, columnated building. The STILL MUSEUM, est. 1872, a welcome sign in gold relief informs her, flanked by parallel topiary bulldogs, bereft of their green and common dog colors, and rendered monochrome by moonlight.
Indeed, here’s a no-man’s-land for pigment. It begins with garden flowers, which she then compares to the silver of the gurgling fountainhead and the silver of the licking flames on the silver candle fixtures to the left and right of the museum’s front door adorned with silver handles and silver hinges. The only color—the bravest—that the moonlight cannot leech, as though saying you will have no more of me, is the earthen brown contained in the trail of Junta’s shoes and those she’s followed all night, and which have finally led her here.
Around the Still Museum’s side, Junta observes the tracks taking on a vertical trajectory, up the rungs of a ladder leading to a window on the third story. Paces away, a non-descript van begins to jostle, disrupting the painterly stillness of the place. Then there’s a voice, a man calling out to Junta, going PSSS’T.
He says his name is Kog and he’s got this wild story about him and his buddies holing up in this van, waiting for a ghost to pass by and leave them alone. A real ghost, he emphasizes, it’s a true story. Kog wants to know what Junta is doing out here in the Middle-Distance, if she put up that ladder, if she knows a way out and, if she does, can they help each other. He’s looking to put together a plan, because, he relents, the old one called for bravery he just doesn’t have.
So, they strike a deal and Kog proposes his vision. Junta agrees to go inside the Still Museum to unlock the front door, bartering for a ride out of the Middle-Distance using her map, with a stop-over along the way to pick up her cargo. Once Junta manages to get the front door open, Kog, and a wreck of a man named Ub, will go in and nab what Kog’s calling, some pharaoh’s little kitty. And because his two left feet would make a poor jitterbug with the pedals, he explains, while Junta’s inside, Kog will work on Ub, calming him down enough to drive them all out of there.
They work it out, they get to work. Kog holds the ladder for Junta to climb up, and while she does, he says “glad that horrid wailing died off, was summoning me nightmares for sure.”
To which Junta replies, “I saw it, this terribly lonely thing, but I didn’t stop to help.”
“Heh. Heartless but I’m not much better. Hope you got a hanky if you end up running into what it was me and Ub saw.”
On the last rungs of the ladder, Junta looks behind her along the terrain of the Middle-Distance. It strikes her how unlikely it is to encounter anyone out here at all. What chance, to have gone wandering on this night and along this crowded trajectory. Waking in the wreck a minute earlier or later, would she be the one slipping through this opened window? Would she be here for the sound of boots lightly touching down and splashing in a puddle collected beneath the sill? A moment later or earlier, would the chance to see the way moonlight and her shadow plays on the sleek marble that leads deeper into the museum not have been hers?
Would it be her, if she moved any faster? If she moved faster than this.
Slowly, at first, through this room and on to the next, and the next, past sculptured portals, ranks of doors, galleries, then through silent rooms onto more silent rooms. She leaves centuries behind her as she navigates the Still Museum’s exhibits, searching for someone she cannot remember, searching for life and finding only the interred past of things whose day has abandoned them. Framed living places, preserved living cultures, catalogued living histories, gathered, crated and carried to this place for nobody. She observes only certain angles in the dark, but Junta knows there are more than just these catches, more than is possible to appreciate in the briefness of her passage. If she moved slower or any faster, would there be time to bring the portraits closer to touching and return ancient tools to ancient hands?
Moving through rooms like this brings to her a quiet sensation. The factoring of Junta by rooms of time and distance, the expression of a terrible loneliness she hardly recognizes anymore. In this darkness, isolated in the dim cabin light of her long road trips, held by Anna in the heat of her direct attention, or out there in the hollow space of the Middle-Distance, Junta is continuously traversing such rooms where single moments and rote processes distend into passages of incalculable and unstable dimensions. One room leads onto the next as walls gradually adapt the shape of other vaults, shrinking and expanding beyond her view into all directions.
Not that she can truly appreciate the architecture or the way these rooms have captured her. Flooded as they are with drowned, dull and undifferentiated life that floods her in turn, she fails to apprehend the immense power of seclusion that places her so apart from everything that is, truly, so near to her. And how drab it is to wade through all this interior space. Even if there are collisions, encounters with someone or something, they leave no impression she can sense, no dead crater for her unfeeling touch to trace and wonder whatever might have happened to her. Such a waste of phenomenon spent on Junta in this way. She moves like this through the diffuse night of every room, alone in her eternal approach and never near arrival.
But in the unseen upper reaches of these expansive rooms, a darker suggestion remains unconfirmed: if every room Junta inhabits is just the same, then perhaps there is only one room. A single room dominated by time and distance, whose dimensions are so large that Junta, racing off into any direction, could dwell inside for years without ever discovering a limit or way out. An unending room to contain all her days, or her one interminable night. It grabs her like a limb in a crowd attached to no one when Junta realizes she never actually entered this room. It is impossible to trace her memory in reverse along the path she had spent years following to a moment where a door or portal or gate was crossed. She lacks the comfort of such a regrettable and specific event. In its absence, suspecting that maybe there isn’t an exit, she feels only doom.
The window that allows her and tonight’s moonlight to enter the Still Museum remains in sight behind Junta, only smaller from her far vantage, reduced to a glimmering star point. It consoles her. She realizes the dimensions of the museum are limited and the possibility of an outside bares down on Junta’s awareness of an inside. There is a sudden expansion where every room Junta has ever been in empties out, and entrances, like beginnings for endings, seem to be just echoes of exits. And after all her tumbling through the dark tonight, here is a door with brightness bleeding through its jamb. Gradient amber licks at her shoes while she hesitates to turn the nob. It contains a promise, she truly believes, to transform her if she’ll allow it. So, with trepidation, she turns the knob, steps inside and closes the door behind her.
She has entered some liminal space, an anteroom of a kind for guests to pause and prepare before diving forward into all that history Junta’s just now closed the door on for good. Color is permitted here, she notices, first with the bone-white and auger adornments studding the walls. There are spines for the room’s vaulted reaches, teeth along the balcony’s arched opening to her left, shoulder blades on a hearth embedded in the parallel wall, and elaborate orbital decorations of a door frame, an alcove for balustraded stairs descending, opposite to Junta when she enters. On shelves which crowd the narrowing spaces of the vaults overhead sit a variety of repurposed glass bottles and jars, too high above and too clouded anyway by dust or whatever shedding for Junta to know what they contain. And this is just as well. The amalgams of living tissue, bundled appendages and unborn creatures embalmed within these cluttered containers, for the last time, have turned their small, cramped backs to a world they wish to forget and be forgotten by.
A dim fire persists in the fireplace, over which hangs an elegantly framed mirror reflecting a view of the balcony and the vantage outside. She has seen something in it that compels her to cross the room, to step out once more into the befuddling night of the Middle-Distance. Oblivious of the culture of exclusion and isolation that reigns secretly above her, Junta moves delicately across clay tiling and the familiar trail of damp imprints to reach out, assure impact if it can be willed, with a ghostly image standing on the balcony, so alone-seeming.
Outside, the moon holds a spotlight on shadows amid a strange ritual. It shines clear upon the movements of an esophagus skating through the translucence of an incoherent body. It descends through a shoulder and down the length of the figure’s only arm, dropping off from its hand into the latest in a sequence of jars, set upon a narrow table like potted plants. They bask in just as much lunar light as Junta’s forgotten passenger, whose shape diminishes with every part that’s sloughed into these containers.
Her curiosity takes her past the standing shadow to kneel beside the table, to get an eye-level look at that esophagus and whatever else might be inside the other jars. With its scant humanoid form, the ghost crouches beside her. Its curiosity outpaces Junta, mounting not because of the mystery of the jars, but for the imminent reaction it expects of her. An excised jaw still red from surgery is submerged within the ebbing shadow of the ghost’s bodily form. Pressed this close to Junta, its half-grin could be construed as a greeting. The jaw salivates just inches from her face with eager encouragement for her to watch. Be certain not to miss this one.
But this is an indirect language Junta thinks she’s interpreting. No tongue in that mouth to wag and confirm just how interested in her the ghost really is. Despite this, an amber drool is pooling beneath them. It trails off a long distance back to Junta’s car, and then beyond to abscesses of anonymous cadavers hundreds of miles away. A hard journey that’s harder to return from. Exhausted and collapsing into itself, Junta watches as the jarred throat turns to pitch and a fluid of shadow begins to fill the jar’s volume to its brim.
Standing and sealing the jar before it can spill, the ghost looms over Junta. Beside the macabre display, it looks almost satisfied, emanating a pride that urges her to remain kneeling and look closer. She studies the jars in sequence, backward and forward, like a sentence whose meaning she is on the verge of intuiting. There is a cool touch reaching through the fabric of her jeans. It’s an amniotic chill she knows, a wet recollection that pierces her confused condition to explain that interred within these glass containers are the cargo organs she is meant to deliver. And they are expiring, or else beginning their departures before she could even reach them.
While watching inky bubbles coalesce and rupture against the jars’ glass, Junta wonders if there is anything inside herself that could compel a person to stop their leaving and remain where they were. If it is there, she cannot picture what it looks like. So, she searches with unfamiliar vision through the dark sheen of glass before her, seeking something honest and innate in its reflection to be shared and embraced. Junta peers through the pitch in search of more than nothing and can only peer deeper.
She is dizzied by this sudden reversal of movement that sweeps her inward. These night dispatches were never taken up to close the distance between her and someone else. They were only the continuous pursuit after an indefinite state. In this movement Junta composes herself; she is as a navigator’s motivation to chart a path through and away, to be the line but never the point, to avoid capture by the design of someone or something capable of encompassing her. She moves to elude definition by another. Tonight, however, all this momentum culminates in delay. In uncertain fractures she has never noticed before, her own reflection hounds her to consider, where have we been led? Through a movement too slow, onto not much of a place, a nowhere that pervades inside her, and peering deeper.
The Middle-Distance occupies a space beyond her sight but a curtain of clouds has moved to block the moon and eclipse everything. Background peripheral and foreground blur with her immediate vision. The entire region turns into the same pitch substance contained in these jars and in a quick, passing moment, all its territory may be traversed without movement, every distance made equivalent before her. Sightless in this blind terrain, Junta feels as though she could be anywhere; all the curvatures of earth are inside her; she holds the intensity of being beside everyone all at once. Then just as suddenly as it happened, the curtain is drawn away, leaving Junta in her glass reflection.
But well past the surface image, through the slight seams formed on the glass, passed into the pitchy nowhere inside, she listens to a deep-throated voice suggest: The places you could reach, Junta, without moving at all.
A clap resounds inside that nowhere space. It races through her skull, threatening to drive her back into that old continuity but its veering is erratic, and she can tell this is something different. Like a bat whose confused screeching works to orient it in dark cave spaces, this internal echo flies after surfaces she cannot see. An intensity, not a movement, emanating inward, not outward, reaching for the unseen limits of that greater room, to its ruined walls Junta thought would close her in forever. Flying over their crumbled ramparts into an eternally unending everywhere within her. No cheap movement; she exudes only speed. Through herself, she reaches out for someone and there’s no distance between them. Inside her there’s enough to hold the ghost and its organs, the whole Middle-Distance with its residents and itinerants and even those people out there in the world waiting on them, waiting on her.
Junta stands. “You have come a long way, I can tell, so you must be tired,” she tells its destitute body. “But there are people out there who expect us. They are alive but only for a while longer, alive in a way that’s not much like living—especially without you.” Inside the shadow pitch containers, glowing cartoon eyes peek, swim and silently return her gaze. “We should go, we risk too much if we just stop.” They swim away, receding into their personal interiors and distances to never reemerge. “Move, let me carry you.” The faceless thing, if it hears her pleading, does nothing. But in what way could she expect a response, without eyes, without a tongue, with a form that’s ever diminishing?
No speech and no body language. What would you say, if you could? Tell me.
“Are you content?” How could you be?
“You’re tired, you want to give up, and now that you’re cut loose, you think a disconnected life is better and this is your chance.” It’s true. This is their only chance to seize control, to determine their own course. Every organ is subject to the influence of a movement that functions automatically to perpetually keep them from failing, from selfishly opting out. A pulsation that confines them to a prison of living health. The movement is constant, though it seems to take them nowhere. The organism overrides whatever selfish desire the organ might have to function for some other purpose. Suicide motivates the organs of this ghost tonight; they harness spite against the resistance to let a heart slow down to the pace of a blinking eye, to speed up and become the flipbook of a caged bird taking flight. It is a tyranny to insist that a lung remain a lung when it might also be something else.
So, remaining still is a motion that seems especially meaningful tonight.
But just the same, conceding perhaps, the ghost does move to pass Junta onto the other corner of the broad balcony where a straight-back chair is placed. Beside the chair it wordlessly stands, waiting with patience for Junta to accept what seems to be its offer for a rest. Between the decorated nodules of the chair’s shoulders, she can see how it frames an image of the Middle-Distance with the crushed perspective of a painting. Her entire journey is depicted with all its distances reduced and folded together. The territories of the field and the band of woods she scrambled over in panic are layered on top of each other, comprising what seems to be just inches of space. Because there are no words the two can communicate with, she moves to meet the ghost and leans with her back turned to it, against the railing where the image before them fills her vision completely. She does not sit, she won’t.
Above these layers winds the road, a dark cut snaking across the canvas where Junta started out on foot. It shrinks to the image’s vanishing point where the moon bows heavily over everything. In the sky, it is the dominant object in the frame. A distorting moon that dictates scale for the night below, holding space together and apart. Suspended between its sloping belly and the asphalt below is Junta’s car with all its scattered cargo. Falling or rising amid an ambiguous state of pre-crash or recomposed ascent. And the night is so quiet; across the flattened distance she thinks the sound of its idling motor might be heard. A familiar humming, far from her, that still seems so close.
Are you coming or going? I can’t tell with you.
You haven’t decided yet, is that it?
Well, you must know by now; no one is going to just wait on you.
The ghost slips away while her back is turned. Its farewell sounds a final surging thrush of substance, rapids of shadow spilling into the last empty jar along the table. Grinning still and chattering, now relinquished, the jaw lands with a buoyant plop. In its last dithered seconds before what happened to the throat happens to the jaw, its own phantom organism sends an itch of laughter along its gums.
Ah, just try to laugh without a jaw. Hilarious; it would have cackled.
A weight in the sky. The midnight vacancy of space which, on nights that are not like this, nights in other places, is cradled serene over land where only a fine scattering of stars occupy the sky, now presses downward onto the terrain, bears itself against the Middle-Distance with the force and presence of that domineering moon. All over there is isolation, and continuous departures and wanderings; a suicidal motion where things appear only to vanish, wherein their vanishing imposes onto presence a frustration of absence, of two mouths mouthing “remove” and “adhere” to each other shoulder inside shoulder, overlapping, compacted and scattered throughout the invisible crowd all over.
At the railing where she leans this atmosphere suddenly grows dense and aggravated. Junta experiences it like a haunting so forcefully against her back, it seemed, that she was threatened with the possibility of being shoved over a ledge. She turns sharply as though to protect herself yet discovers no one on the balcony with her. Despite the unfixable sensation of being rudely crowded into a tight order among other bodies, she walks with an unrestricted gait in her search along the balcony and the connected anteroom for whoever could be blamed. But in a moment, as the same crowding feeling persists and she adjusts. It dawns on her that there is no one here, that she is all alone, and that she is probably the only moving thing in all the Still Museum. Returning to the balcony at a startled pace that almost sends her colliding with the table, which would have sent one lidless jar tumbling, Junta discovers she isn’t just suddenly alone but that she is abandoned.
The last jar is filled; these cargo organs have gone a distance that she cannot follow. Staring into the black nothing, she finds that its warbling surface distorts all reflection, presents images, signs, possible hints for direction but all incoherent. Standing next to the table, feelings of loss flirt with Junta but it’s all too intangible for her to mourn. Nothing here for anyone, especially for her, and she has grown tired of seeking comfort through absent things. Inside her, in that vast everywhere she contains, there is a tangible medium through which she can reach anything, take comfort in contact and touch. And it would be real.
Still at the table looking down at the quivering liquid in the glass container, she reaches out for something to hold—for those who might love her, for those who are waiting for her, for those who aren’t, for a pharaoh’s mummy pet downstairs, those boys outside, and a seal to place upon the jar. With one movement she gathers all these things and takes them with her when she leaves the balcony, headed to the first floor.
And in still silence, black pitch rejects the pestering of moonbeams against glass and will not permit their begging to be let in.
We are gone, Junta is too; just let us alone.
“We can’t trust maps on nights with moons like that.,” she shouts, running out the front door of the Still Museum and jumping in the passenger seat of the van. “Let’s go, I know the way enough,” and Ub peels off. The smell of rubber; you could tell that’s where he channeled his terror. “For jobs like this, you need focus. And now I can appreciate why you always tell us not to think too much, stick to the plan, not second guess nor start improvising. It would be so easy to fly apart at the seams when you see such inexplicable things, when your plan gets away from you as it did.
Boss, take it easy, don’t try to get up. It’s dark in here but you’re safe.
Just listen. Let me tell you. I know you’ll be proud to hear it.
Ub and I, we got that kitty.
But we very nearly left without it. There was a moment, Boss, where, yeah, the plan did fall apart. When you weren’t responding, and it seemed like Ub and I would have to go it alone. We just couldn’t get unstuck from our roles, it seemed impossible without you. Ub could only think of driving, and I was just a pair of helping hands there to hold things when told to. It was like if the two of us could somehow function like normal then you would have to function like that too. But you weren’t waking up.
It was lucky that she came along.
Because when she did, something inside me started to move and, you know, Boss, I started to see myself sort of as I see you. For a moment, when you weren’t there, I was something of a Boss myself. But not actually. I just brought her in on the old plan. It was like you were still there when you really weren’t. We both needed help. It was the only way we could get the job done without you.
She told me her name is Robin. She’s the one who went inside and grabbed the cat.
Then we left. Robin had us moving quickly through the zone, off roads, through parts not on any map. She was charting us a course because neither of us knew the way in, out, or through this kind of space. That was part of your expertise, but you weren’t awake then.
On our way, we had to stop to pick up cargo she had stranded after totaling her car along the main road, north from where we were. Just a bunch of coolers scattered all over the road. I helped her gather and put them in the back with us. (You looked like a pharaoh all your own, I think to tell you, laying still beside those coolers, watched over by a mummified cat waiting for the doors to close and resume its eternal rest.) One of them was leaking, just useless, damaged cargo. Robin reached inside it, handed what it was to me and said, “Here, if there’s any swelling,” and closed us in.
It was firm, damp and cool. I pressed it to your cheek while Robin directed Ub where to go next, and I think it might have helped with your swelling. But if nothing else, Boss, it kept my worry down. Which is just as good, I think.
We were rolling through the dark for some time. Through the window in the partition, I watched Robin guide Ub to avoid parts of the Middle-Distance that were painted by the moon’s glow. We drove along barely perceivable wooded roads, beneath thick canopies, where vision was so poor and Ub really should have slowed down but kept up at Robin’s insistence.
Then we came out into the open, and up ahead I saw a sign welcoming us to the FARM FOR ANIMALS. We passed beneath it, traveling along a dirt road that sloped downward and ended, just ahead, I could see, not at a farm, Boss, but at the edge of a cliff. Before us was just the maw of craggy expanse and overhead the hanging moon.
Before the road could run out ahead of us, Robin asked Ub to pull off, guiding him to this destitute wooden shack. It was all that was left, it seemed, when the rest of what must have been the Farm For Animals slid away or was bitten off the map; at least that’s how it seemed to me. Robin got out, leaving just the three of us, the old crew, alone in the idling car. We didn’t talk, but Ub and I watched as Robin approached the shack and, after knocking, entered. Neither of us said it then because said or unsaid it couldn’t make any sense; but even though the moon was hanging bigger than ever over our heads, its glow was weaker here than anywhere we’d been all night.
It was like we were out of reach, Boss. There were shadows where it seemed like there shouldn’t be. I don’t know if I could explain why but that was a strange kind of comfort. I don’t know. We looked up at it for a long time and all the while my thoughts were empty. Nothing of the usual moon things like astronauts, cheese, distance, ghosts and crimes at night. What we were looking at might as well not have been the moon.
And while we looked, the shack door had opened, and someone stepped out and crossed in front of Ub. A man in blue overalls, his neck held to a stiff tilt, squinting past acknowledgement as he walked with purpose in a direction I couldn’t see. Then, from the shack exited several more men, similarly dressed, but otherwise different. They followed the first somewhere off to the left, toward the cliff edge. Robin was the last to exit and now she too was wearing overalls. Following the group of men, she signaled Ub to bring around the van as she passed.
He moved the car over to where the road disappeared. Through the window, I could see some of the men waiting idly around, speaking to each other without animation. Around them there were chained together various vehicles made for farm work, worn and weathered through time, rusting and in noticeable states of decay. Linked together as they were, with tow cables snaking in a powerful mess that disappeared off the cliff behind their herd, they seemed like ruined beasts of burden who had grazed on everything these indifferent farmers allowed them to reach for. When all the men had gathered, Robin addressed the man with the squint in a discussion I could only hear fragments of.
The man turned and spoke with the rest of his crew while Robin returned to the van. “We’re getting out of here,” she said, like it was all taken care of, as though we could just drive off into the maw below the moon before us.
Boss, I want you to understand what happened at least as much as I understand it. It feels like I can’t remember, but I do. Just listen.
These men and their machines that whinnied like horses when they struck them to get moving watched the sky beneath the moon without astonishment, like it was absolutely ordinary, as it was yoked like a sleeper’s eyelid that’s delicately drawn open by a nurse or a surgeon just before operating.
Over the puttering of diesel machines, along thin night air, Boss. “Go in,” is all one of them said; the last word anyone has spoken since.
The way your own words get told inside you works differently than how they get told on the outside. This is the difficulty that confronts me, Boss. Knowing what a word holds when it’s on the inside, like a brick that’s laid to something grand, but seeing how it struggles to hold anything and flies away from me when I tell it to you. Well, it’s my terror, Boss, and I haven’t got to tell that before. I’ve been told to, in the past, keep it quiet and so I have. But now I’m going to tell you. Tell you about what just happened and at the same time tell you how I’ve always told myself and never tried to tell on the outside.
Let me tell you, Boss.
It fell over us, covered us, went over us like a blanket and we crawled in under it. And I mean that; there’s no other way I know how to say it. The briefest glimpse of a night beyond a curtained window as the wind, well, opens it like a sleeper’s eyelid yoked. Ub flicked on the high beams and we peered at the space beneath the moon. “Go in,” someone said, and we did.
It fell over us, it covered us, we crawled in under it and have been crawling since that last word someone said. We entered into this undermoon domain.
Ub was showing signs like he might never let up. It took an equal effort from himself and the machinery of the van to drive through terrain like this where there were no landmarks, roads, nothing near or in the nonexistent horizon that the furthest burning high-beam could ever reach. His face was changing, another terror reaction like he’d gone through at the Still Museum when he saw that ghost, but happening too slowly, too mechanically. It was as though the clutch had been leveraged between the hemispheres of his brain until it snapped just to keep things operating.
From the passenger seat, Robin kept her eyes on Ub. I can’t be certain, but I don’t think there was any overt concern in that look. She might have been watching his rapt attention, trying to imagine what he was seeing, because outside the windows there was nothing.
But, Boss, that’s not what it was. Robin was watching out for Ub and at some moment I couldn’t distinguish from the rest of them, here in the dark where time didn’t seem to work, she reached an arm out to his shoulder and said “I can get us the rest of the way, Ub.” She pulled him out of that stasis so steadily, understanding his blinkered reaction with no need for words, seeing him and wanting to help. I don’t think I could have done it, Boss.
After some elaborate maneuvering over each other, Ub got into the passenger and let Robin take over. He stared straight off for a minute but then turned his attention back to me and you, Boss. He didn’t say anything. I just watched him watching me, held him in my vision, glad he was okay.
He lifted his arm onto the shoulder of his seat and laid his chin against it, then he said “never gonna take another job like this again,” and rested his eyes.
You must have heard her say it, “this is a truly awful way to get through it.” You were awake then, Boss.
“Yeah, I don’t like it, but it’s how we’re going to get there.” She signals turns, flicks on the wipers, and seems like an expert even out here.
“Just don’t take that to mean it’s going to be quick, we’re not almost home yet.”
“But I’ll see that we get there,” she says. Here, where it’s as dark inside as it is outside, I can’t see anywhere else without Robin, Ub and you, Boss.