“Once More Into The Abyss” by Dennis Danvers is the last of three novelettes about Stan, whose parents claimed to be aliens and either perished or went home via an abyss in the middle of New Mexico. Stan is drawn back to the Abyss when his wife is offered a job there studying alien artifacts. So Stan and his family (wife, son, brother and three dogs) take a road trip.
I just changed, aged, got older, however you want to put it. Isn’t that how every story should begin? Even if the sucker’s in present tense, it got written and revised after what really happened—or was imagined to happen—hopelessly entangled—actually happened. Our present past is a reinvention, a reimagining of the facts. That’s not just old age. The boundary’s always been more than a little slippery. Still. The story you’re about to hear changed your narrator. Isn’t that the very definition of getting older—change? Of a story, for that matter. We change until we die and become other people’s memories, and of course they change too. Might as well get over yourself now. Once you’re dead, other people get to decide who you are. Why let them get started on that now?
Getting older doesn’t just glide along, however, smooth and easy at a steady pace. It’s like a clogged-up little creek for many years, quiet and tranquil, same old trickle downstream, but when the hard rains come, then watch out, because then everything changes all at once, and washes your little world away.
Don’t mean to sound grim. It’s just the way it is. I’m the happiest, luckiest, happy-go-luckiest guy I know. Everything is perfect. Everything, as it always does, is happening now:
Katyana and I are sleeping in, or trying to. We’re both early risers and would rather be up and out enjoying what looks to be, through the window, a beautiful day. We can hear Dylan in the kitchen laboring furiously to make us breakfast in bed before we have the bad taste to get out of it, so naturally we stay, trade nostalgic memories about him, about us. It’s our anniversary. What started out as a marriage of convenience, I believe it’s called, has turned out to be quite wonderful for all three of us. Dylan’s twelve. I’m seventy-nine. That’s coming up on 2.5 billion seconds. Time flies when you’re having a good time. Katyana’s lived a mere 1.4 billion seconds or so, but she’s wise beyond her moments. We’re holding hands. We do that a lot. Mine are leathery and old, a rainbow of liver spots arcing from pinkie to thumb, hers tattooed and still graceful looking like a beautiful tropical bird.
We squeeze and release when we hear Dylan trudging up the stairs, freeing our hands to make a fuss. He totters in with a huge tray heaped with food. Anticipating this, Katyana and I have cleared a space for a landing on top of the dresser, usually covered in random crap and piles of change. We’re not the tidiest couple, but we’re happy. He sets down the heavy tray with a cringe-making clatter, and we shriek with delight for the feast our wonderful son lays before us, applaud his presentation, the aromas, his thoughtfulness.
He serves us a spicy tofu scramble with lime-cilantro-mango salsa and fresh tortillas, zucchini muffins, grapefruit slices, and lots of hot coffee—this is my kid we’re talking about. He’s the best cook in the house, twelve-year-old earnest. The food radiates love. We dig in. I’m snuffly—from the salsa, or from the moment, I can’t say—but everything is perfect.
When people say I love God, this is how they feel.
Then Katyana’s phone bleats, and she says she has to take it, leaps out of bed and takes the call in the master bath.
Dylan’s as surprised as I am. What’s so important to interrupt our good time? We’re a spoiled pair. She likes to spoil us—that’s our story anyway. We listen intently. The bathroom amplifies everything but muddies it up too. It’s her excited voice, but restrained a little. She’s speaking up even though she’s standing in the bathroom staring into the shower. A lot’s riding on this call. We can tell that much. Dylan and I trade a look. Neither of us has a clue. You can’t make out enough of the words to get the sense. Then out of nowhere, an unmistakable eruption of joy, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” It’s positively orgasmic. It’s overwhelming to hear it. Her joy is the world to me.
She bursts into the bedroom, her phone clutched to her breast like it’s responsible for her good fortune. “I got a job! They must’ve had hundreds of applicants. Thousands! It’s a real dig—I’ll be an archeologist again! There’s even a place for all of us to live!”
“What about the dogs?” Dylan asks. If he hadn’t, I would’ve. The dogs are ancient. Avatar’s fifteen and Myrna sixteen. Though she’s a little more with it than he is, the best they can manage some mornings is to stumble around the neighborhood without bumping into anything, sleeping and farting together in whatever sunlit patch of rug they can find. I’m not sure how well they’ll travel.
“The dogs will love it!” Katyana declares. “It’s beautiful. You said so yourself when you drove us all the way out there and back.” Her eyes meet mine, and she lets that last part sink in a bit.
Holy shit. “We’re talking about the abyss?”
She nods excitedly. “It’s an incredible opportunity! The first serious archeological exploration of the site!”
Oh joy, the incredibly weird and scary site. “That’s wonderful!” I declare and hop out of bed, wrapping my arms around her. She beckons to Dylan, and he pops inside our circle and smiles up at us with perfect love and trust in his eyes. You poor kid, your parents are alien looneys, I want to say but don’t. He already knows. His mother and I try to practice total honesty with the kid, a perilous policy if there ever was one, but so far it’s worked out spectacularly. Someday, before I die, I aspire to be as together as my kid. “We’re going to New Mexico!” I tell him. “It will be a wonderful adventure!”
Katyana used to be a working archeologist with the highway department, then the recession hit, road building ground to a halt, and any archeological digging would have to be done the old-fashioned way. Funding was scarce to nonexistent. Thousands of archeologists chased a handful of jobs. For the last twelve years she’s worked at mostly shitty, lifeless jobs. To see her like this fills my heart with joy. I’ll follow her anywhere. And I wasn’t lying to Dylan. This will be an adventure. Filled with wonder. Alien portal, geological oddity, or archeological treasure trove of enigmatic artifacts—take your pick—any journey to the abyss is an adventure, though in my two previous visits, I never managed to make it all the way. Third time’s the charm, they say.
The sun hasn’t even set on this news, and the three of us are gathered around a battered road atlas on the coffee table to show Dylan where we’re going. It’s the atlas Katyana and I took before he was born to call on Dylan’s biological father who lived just shy of the abyss, who didn’t care to get involved in Dylan’s pending birth or his life thereafter.
So when he arrived, I took on that good fortune, much to my continued delight, relishing each second—his and mine. We’re telling him our version of this epic journey, and he’s enthralled, though he’s heard it all before, when Katyana’s phone rings again. She sighs when she sees the source, but this time doesn’t leave the room, and we can all hear the tinny voice on the other end. Is she the daughter of Simon Deetermeyer? she’s asked, and she confesses, bows her head, wondering what trouble her wacky old man’s gotten himself into this time, only to learn he’s dead in New Mexico, an apparent suicide. By this time, she’s sobbing so hard I take the phone away from her. “This is Katyana’s husband. She’s devastated. May I ask how did this happen?”
He tells me in a deadpan cop voice from a thousand miles away: “We have him on security cameras breaching the perimeter of an archeological site known as the abyss, and at exactly noon our time, he jumped.”
“Has the body been recovered?”
Is that a chuckle? “You can’t recover nobody from the abyss. Too deep. Too dangerous. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. Would you have your wife call us when she feels ready?”
You bet, Chuckles. “I’ll pass that along.” I take her in my arms and hold her. After a while, I put her into bed, continue to hold her, and she cries herself into a fitful sleep. Every once in a while she wakes up and cries some more, clinging to me. Dylan, who never knew his grandfather, takes care of us with tea and snacks. I read, look out the window, watch the beautiful day’s progress, reminisce. The day I was told my folks had disappeared into the abyss, I wanted someone to hold me, but there wasn’t anyone. There’s nowhere I would rather be than holding her. Dylan pops in to check on us, and I tell him to go to bed. It’s been a long day.
“Was it a good anniversary?” he asks.
“The best,” I say.
He glances nervously at his sleeping mother. “What was he like?” he asks me. “Was he . . .”
“Crazy? Good question. I wish I knew. Crazy or not, I think he was right about some crazy things, like aliens.” Dylan’s familiar with my weird notions and remains undecided about them, but Simon Deetermeyer was way weirder than me. He was on a mission. Some would call it obsession. Like John the Baptist, he said once in a story Katyana narrated to me: the night her father shared his theories with the assembled family for the first and only time—that aliens had come to Earth and taken on human form, then fled en masse leaving behind a network of adult children of alien beings struggling to understand their enigmatic identities. It was his mission and purpose in life to set them free, so that they might return to their home planet.
You don’t get any more wackadoodle than that. Unless you become one of his followers. Like me.
“He was incredible,” Katyana said. “He was on fire!” That night her mother packed the three kids in the car and left him. Katyana’s the youngest, the only one who ever had anything to do with him after that night. He was crazy. Whether it was John the Baptist crazy or not, you can decide for yourself.
As for me I’m an old man child of aliens. I’m past adult. It’s okay to be childish again and believe in nonsense when you look like me. People practically expect it. An old man who isn’t totally daft and frail is a bit scary to most folks. Dodder and dither, and they know who you are and treat you like a child.
Dylan asks, “Is that why Mom never went to see him, and he never came to see us? Because of the alien stuff?”
“No. It was just better that way. He needed to hide, and not just because he was a hermit by nature. He had a habit of getting himself into trouble. He would do things to serve the cause that weren’t always wise, like lying about his academic credentials. Your mom was always the one to help him get through it all. She reached a point where she needed peace, time with us, you especially. She enjoyed the silence, because it meant he was okay, that he’d finally found his niche, that he was finally happy. That’s where he wanted to be, just down the road from the abyss, where he believes aliens came and went, and just might come back again. Now she may feel guilty for letting him live out his dream, but it was really the best thing for both of them. Your mother’s a wonderful daughter.”
“I think Mom’s awake,” Dylan says. “She just squinted.”
“Busted,” Katyana says without opening her red, swollen eyes. “I have to be at the site by Friday.”
“We can start packing in the morning.” I rock her in my arms.
“You’re the sweetest man who ever lived.”
“It’s the alien in me.”
Next morning, we haven’t even finished our usual oatmeal breakfast when an envelope arrives express mail for Katyana. It’s from her father. Sent about an hour before the time Officer Chuckles told us he jumped.
It’s handwritten on the Institute of Advanced Alien Sciences stationery. “At long last, the aliens are returning to recover their lost children and bring them home!” it begins. The rest is just the usual messianic jibber-jabber, until the end, when he says, “By the time you receive this I will have gone on ahead to meet them, to show them the way, for it can be a frightening passage, from one world to another! Be brave, my child! See you on the Home Planet, my beloved one!”
As you can see, he’s been working on the John the Baptist thing. The heartbreaker about Simon is, he was never 100 percent sure he was an alien child himself, which put Katyana’s status in further doubt. (She’s more or less sure she’s not; I think she is.) But her father desperately wanted it to be true. So that they could return to the stars where they belonged—the two of them. It’s not as if the rest of the family would notice or care if they left. Whatever happened to the weird ones? they might ask at Thanksgiving, then entertain themselves inventing cruel stories, feeling all thankful and festive because they aren’t the aliens. At my age, it gets too easy to dismiss my wacko beliefs as dementia, which is not quite so jolly. Poor old codger. Be kind.
Alien codgers rarely experience dementia. Heart attacks and cancer we’ve got covered. We don’t always have the best diet and abhor organized fitness, smoke to excess and guzzle caffeine and alcohol. But dementia almost never shows—course we rarely live past eighty, though my brother Ollie is eighty-four through no fault of his own. His body’s a slothful battleground for the pitched battle between his drugs and his diet to keep his heart beating. Or not.
I eat a vegan diet and practice yoga four times a week, having cleaned up my act after my heart attack a decade and a half ago. My blood is a mighty river. My breath tireless. The interior of my colon is as immaculate as the future in 2001. Too bad we never got that future. I wouldn’t mind seeing Jupiter. Instead we’ve got this poor fucked-over planet.
Most alien men my age are liberals, if you’re wondering. Not all. Not Ollie. Ollie’s an anomaly, which is kind of fun to say. Unfortunately he still insists on Oliver, even though our alien parents named us Stan and Ollie—not Stanley and Oliver. Aliens love comic duos. Abbott and Costello. Burns and Allen. Yin and Yang.
I’ve got to call and tell Ollie we’re moving. I brace myself for battle, though at his last wife’s funeral, I sensed something softening in him. I never thought he’d fully accept that Mom and Dad were aliens, but in recent years he seems to have come around.
“What do you want?” he answers.
“I love you too, Oliver.”
“I’m sitting on the can.”
“Because I can’t figure out how to get my messages on this fucking phone, and if I miss the wrong one, everybody assumes I’m dead, and the next thing I know I’ve got the fucking rescue squad banging on the front door. I never wanted the fucking phone in the first place.”
“Of course I’m fucking constipated, Stan. I’m eighty-four years old.”
“Are you eating enough fiber?”
“Fuck you and your fiber!”
Definitely constipated. “How are the dogs?” I ask him, to change the subject to a safe haven. We both love animals like crazy and always have; so did Mom and Dad. One of the strongest indicators of alien identity is intense interspecies empathic bonding. Ollie has a thing for big dogs, usually two or three at a time. I prefer a dog and a cat. I’ve let it go so long now grieving over my last cat that getting one now that I’ve only got a few years to live seems unfair somehow. We aliens kids are big grievers. Of course, Dylan might want a cat. He’s entitled. Avatar was Katyana’s dog and Myrna was mine when we met. For the last twelve years they’ve been ours.
“I’m down to one dog,” Ollie says like this is some catastrophe. It might help with the aches and pains he’s always on about if he didn’t regularly get pulled like a wishbone with a Doberman on one hand and a Husky on the other.
“What is she?” I ask. We both prefer females, like most alien males.
“It’s a boy, actually. He’s six months, and he’s already a handful. I saw him where I used to volunteer, and, you know me, I took him home. He’s a Dane. I always wanted one, but never took the plunge because they don’t live so long, and it’s hard enough having your heart broke every few years. But I figure we can make it a contest—he and I—see if we can both make a decade.”
“I like it. What do you call him?”
“He does survive the play.”
“Exactly. How’s yours doing? Still the standard poodle and the border collie?”
“That’s right. They’re both getting to that rickety arthritic stage, though Myrna may be doing a touch better than Avatar. If one goes, the other one will not be far behind. They’re tight. They stick around for each other.”
Ollie laughs. It echoes in his john. “Are you one of those crazy alien motherfuckers with a soft spot for animals?”
“Me too. How’s the family?”
“That’s why I called. Katyana’s father died.”
“Shit, I’m sorry to hear that.” I can hear the wheels turning. “He was kind of crazy, wasn’t he?”
“He committed suicide. New Mexico cop just called. He jumped into the abyss.”
So I tell him the whole story right up to the last message from Simon Deetermeyer himself.
“So y’all are just uprooting and going to New Mexico? To that place of all places? Jeez, Stan, this is the loopiest thing you’ve ever done.”
“I thought that was marrying Katyana. That’s turned out so horrible I can hardly begin to describe my suffering to you.”
“You don’t have to get snippy. I’m happy for you. How’s Dylan?”
I tell him about our anniversary breakfast. He doesn’t snicker once during the whole thing, and tells me what a sweet kid I have.
So I’m not exactly surprised when he says, “Can I come with you? I don’t know how I’d get out there otherwise. I mean, if Deetermeyer’s right, I don’t want to miss it. I’d drive myself, but they took my license away.”
“Of course, Ollie. The more the merrier.”
He doesn’t even tell me not to call him Ollie.
When Ollie and I were little, we used to ride along with Dad summers, in the back seat of the company car. He was a traveling salesman with a five-state territory and was away a lot. According to Simon Deetermeyer’s research, traveling salesman was a favorite job among the original aliens. They were ideally suited—restless chameleons with tons of empathy and a ready wit. In Dad’s case—a pharmaceutical representative, aka prescription drug peddler, aka detail man—his work may also have been research on humans. You can learn a lot about a species by what ails them, what they choose to treat, the medicines they’ll take and the ones they won’t.
In Dad’s day, ulcers were big. Now, I suppose it’s failing hearts, failing minds. Then, as now, the gatekeeper to many a medical professional was a woman. Dad had a way with women, as most alien men do—maybe one of the reasons Mom traveled with him in the summers, so all his girlfriends on the road could have a look at his happy family. There was a waitress in a Mexican restaurant in San Angelo who knew Dad by name, knew what he ordered, and was pretty nervous the whole time, Dad too, but that was one time out of thousands of restaurants, and Mom seemed to find the whole thing amusing. We were often a happy family, and we were happiest, seems to me, those summers on the road. We loved it. Me more than Ollie maybe, since it began to compete with his interest in girls. When he hit sixteen I mostly had Mom and Dad to myself, crisscrossing his territory. Ollie missed a lot.
We stopped often, which Dad didn’t usually do when he was working. He would take note of anything that looked interesting to him, or might be interesting to me or Mom, during the year and wait till we were along to take it in. It might be an enormous model train layout or an impressionist painting or a snake farm or a hot blues band or a cemetery. Mom and Dad had a thing about cemeteries. All of us would wander around like they were sculpture gardens. I was always on the lookout for angels. Ollie bellyached about it, and we all ignored him, but I didn’t miss him when he quit coming along. Sometimes when it was just the three of us wandering among the dead at sunset, Dad would say, I wonder what Ollie’s up to now, all wistful, like he wished he was with us. Mom would answer his question with the name of some girl Ollie was screwing, half of whom I never met. He was five years older, in a different universe where people actually fucked. There was plenty of drama—angry girls on the phone who would even talk to me to relay a pleading message to Ollie—so I kind of believed him when he’d say he wished he’d been there to see the Monet, the 76 Deadly Rattlers in a Pit, or the Plains Indian Museum.
Now here we are two old geezers in the back seat of Katyana’s Outback, rocketing through Texas, Katyana at the wheel, singing along with the music Dylan (riding shotgun) has selected from his phone, some band I don’t know the name of but I like. Alien men like to keep up with what’s current, hate oldies stations with a passion.
Katyana has a beautiful voice. Alien women often possess beautiful singing voices. Dad once bragged to me and Ollie that our Mom sang Madame Butterfly to a standing ovation in her youth, and she told him to shush and soon left the room, tears welling in her eyes. Aliens are often tortured by unfulfilled artistic ambitions. Mom had several—painting, singing, poetry. Dad was a failed mystery writer and standup comedian. He loved to tell jokes. He was a master at it.
They were a talented pair. But they knew they weren’t ordinary humans, and when their mission was completed, they would have to return home and turn their backs on all things human, starting with the human form all the art was about in one way or another. Who knows why an alien would love opera? Did Mom love it because it was alien, or because it was not? Maybe she was weeping because she knew when she shed her human body she would sing no more and live in a world without arias.
I know I sound crazy. I’ve honed the skill over the years, along with a near total disinterest in what others may think of me. It’s one of the major perks to being an old fart, and don’t underestimate its value. Wish I’d learned the skill years ago.
Avatar and Myrna sprawl across our laps, twitching and dreaming, making little yippy noises like they could still chase anything. Ollie’s goofy Dane, Horatio, crammed in the back with the luggage, can’t seem to sleep either. He’s not half-grown, already bigger than Avatar, but he’s all legs he can’t get to work together. He’s a clumsy, excitable boy. But once we hit the road something magical happened. I suspect this is his first highway drive with the windows down. Ollie always wants them up. Horatio stares into the wind, transfixed, his ears aflutter. His gyrating nose sucks down the smells until he’s numb with the smell of Everything! Bliss!
With Katyana at the wheel, the windows are cracked so we can all smell the night air, hear the screeching rush of our passage! Be where we are! That was Dad, when the weather was nice, or we were driving through something he wanted to smell—flowers, horses, the dawn—crack would go the windows. As a kid, I used to close my eyes and imagine I was on a rocket ship bound for Heinlein’s Mars. What a swell place that was. Ollie used to complain he couldn’t hear himself think and Dad would reply in the shout necessary to make himself heard over the roar, like a voice out of a whirlwind— Don’t you get enough of your own thoughts already? Maybe you should listen to the wind instead of your busy little brain.
I know Ollie didn’t like having his brain called little, because it certainly wasn’t, but the point Dad was trying to make went right by him. It was often like that with those two. Dad would try to pass on some wisdom to Ollie who could give a shit, while I hung on his every word. Those were great times. But this is better. Everything is perfect.
Here and now. You can’t beat it.
I look out across the desert landscape of west Texas and think about death. I know the eighty-year morbidity statistic isn’t like a law or anything. I don’t have to die then. Or I could die sooner. I could die right now.
So what else is new? Death and I have met. He doesn’t scare me anymore. In fact, I often ask myself, If I were to die right now, how would that be? It’s made me a better and happier man. Seconds are precious.
Ollie’s asleep, which is what I should be doing—we’re due to reach the abyss at dawn—but I can’t sleep—not usually a problem for me this time of night. The dogs and I typically rise early and doze off early. We’ve crossed a time zone, but the dawn’s chasing us. Pretty soon the dogs and I will need to stretch our legs. They’re slow these days but seem to enjoy their long, snuffling walks. They haven’t lost their sense of smell.
As a kid, one of my first realizations of how weird and unusual my parents were was their attitude toward pets. If we brought it home, and it didn’t belong to somebody else and wasn’t dangerous—no scorpions or poisonous serpents—we could keep it and take care of it, get to know it. But not too many of any one kind. A new species was a shoo-in. Mom ended up doing a lot of the caretaking, of course, but what we weren’t allowed to do was neglect them. If you weren’t willing to hang out with a pet once in a while, maybe they might have something better to do with their lives than live it in a cage.
We had a fair number of dogs and cats, but never more than two of each, except for the occasional litter we fostered. Mom was crazy for kittens. Same with turtles, lizards, gerbils, rats. There were fish tanks until Mom rebelled on that one. I can’t blame her. How many ecosystems can you watch collapse, leaving a sea of fetid corpses? I’m guessing there weren’t fish on Mom’s home planet. She couldn’t connect with fish, though she certainly tried.
With every other pet, however, Mom and Dad were full of information about what they were thinking, feeling, hoping for. To them, all species were sentient creatures. Not like Disney animals but weird and goofy and fun. Complicated.
Because of the cats, we never did birds—though Mom always chatted up crows wherever they turned up. The one brief exception was a terrified cage-bound parakeet named Luigi who Mom soon drove down to somewhere in Florida to release when she saw how miserable he was.
He was grateful, Mom reported when she returned, delighted to be outside. Outside doesn’t amount to much if you’re always on the inside looking out at it, but once you’re there? It’s everything! Remember that, boys, she added, another nugget from Mom. Ollie doesn’t even remember it, but it stuck with me. Dad and Ollie used to wound each other, but Ollie mostly ignored Mom, which wounded her, perhaps, most of all. I adored my mom and dad, and then they just left when I’d barely gotten to know them.
If what Simon says is true, I may soon see them again after almost two billion seconds, most of my life, in other words. If that doesn’t make you lose sleep, I suppose nothing will.
There’s a fence around the perimeter of the abyss, quite a substantial fence, cameras, the whole rigmarole. Yet Simon Deetermeyer climbed over it. Fortunately for me and the dogs, we don’t have to. We’re housed on the abyss side of the fence. On the other is miles and miles of National Forest. Everything’s forest either side of the fence, except for the anomaly, the star of the show, the very deep, very strange hole in the middle of everything. It’s our first morning walk in our new neighborhood on the lip of an enigma, the dogs and I. We’re all a bit nervous, darting our eyes, twitching our noses, leery of shadows.
You don’t just stumble upon the abyss. You have to navigate a maze of forest roads, each one shittier than the last and certainly bouncier. And even then it seems to come out of nowhere, this emptiness—the abyss.
Just inside the fence sits a recently constructed three-bedroom house, nothing fancy but sound, the archeologist’s family residence, one of the perks of Katyana’s new job. We are the archeologist’s family, her most cherished artifacts. It’s completely furnished. Everything is beige or worse. We’ll have to make our mark by shedding prodigiously and hanging shit all over the walls. There’s a big eat-in kitchen. We’ll like this place just fine.
On this first morning in our new home, I slipped out of bed quietly and the dogs followed. Horatio started whining, so I decided to take him with us and let my aged brother sleep. He claims never to get any, but he practically hibernated all the way here, prompting Dylan to ask if Uncle Oliver was all right. He’s eighty-four, I explained. How he manages to walk Horatio, I can’t imagine.
For me, walking with dogs early in the morning is one of the great pleasures of human life. Horatio is challenging that notion. I want to walk through these magnificent woods and see the sun rise over the abyss. He wants to go berserk in the Forest! He’s never experienced one before. Gone is the Zen dog in the car window. He smells deer and dead things and who knows what all as he races this way and that. We proceed in fits and starts as I stop to reel him back in.
Avatar puts up with his puppy antics for a few of these episodes, until finally he lets out a fearsome snarl worthy of a satanically possessed werewolf and shows some snaggletooth fang, and damn if huge Horatio doesn’t sink into the dirt and the pine needles in a puddle of submission, while Myrna looks on like that beauty who watched George slay the dragon—if she were a half-daffy collie in her last days. We haven’t got time for this nonsense, she seems to say. Myrna, even now, always acts like she’s got someplace to go, and the herd better stick with her.
Avatar, as usual, falls in behind her, and Horatio stumbles behind him. Now that Myrna’s lead dog, I can relax. Her navigation skills are still far superior to mine. Around the house the woods are sparse, but they soon grow deep and dark.
It goes without saying that the dogs believe in the presence of aliens. All dogs do. One sniff, and they know. I’ve never seen it fail. Has your dog ever veered off from his walk, quite out of character, to meet some oncoming stranger in a wagging frenzy? Alien.
I counted four cameras in the trees aimed at the house, one for each side. Who knows how many are inside? Who knows what might show up out of the abyss?
When we got here, Katyana and I did a quick dash through the visitor’s center with a tiny museum of the site. There was one car in the parking lot, one guy inside who said he was a volunteer. He volunteered his ignorance of the site, so we wouldn’t make the mistake of asking him any questions. Prominent among the displays was a case full of artifacts from the abyss with the caption Do you know what any of these objects are? What they might have been used for? Damn near anything by the looks of them, as intricate as the complex doodles I draw when I’m on hold listening to oldies, trying to maintain my serenity.
The artifacts look like things that used to show up in Mom’s weird paintings and mosaics. I asked one time what something was in one of her paintings. She was going through a still life phase. She’d put something like a pile of fruit, a jug of laundry detergent, and a claw hammer on the kitchen table and spend the day painting it, only the jug didn’t look like a jug, and the hammer didn’t look like a hammer, and the fruit looked like fruit from another planet. She was letting me watch. I asked her what the hammer thing was, and she told me it was a thraxle.
“You bend time with it,” she said, “so you can see what’s around the corner.”
“You can’t bend time,” I said.
“Not without a thraxle,” she said.
I’ve always wanted a thraxle, but as Mom used to say, getting what you want is seriously overrated. She sounded like she spoke from firsthand experience, so I always wondered what had disappointed her, what did she regret? Did she want me and Ollie? I believe she did. What she didn’t want anymore was to leave us and go home. So maybe she will come to see us like Simon said if only just to say good-bye.
And suddenly the dogs and I are out of the woods, standing at the lip of the abyss, a circular berm that for all the world looks like a pucker. All attempts to measure the depths of the abyss have failed, but the various instruments sent down to plumb it are hauled up encrusted with the artifacts Katyana has come to investigate and understand. What’s not to understand? They’re alien. Inscrutable. Everything is scrutable, Katyana corrects me, even if you don’t know what the fuck it means.
It’s hard to look dead on at the abyss. There’s no point of reference. You’ve never seen anything like it before. The emptiness seems to draw you in, summon you perhaps, into its inky depths. It’s hard not to feel like no matter what you do, you will fall in.
But we don’t look into it, the dogs and I, lined up in a row as the sun breaks through the massive pines and warms our faces with delicious light. Even Horatio closes his eyes and tilts back his drooling snout and lets the sun wash over him. We’re only here a few glorious moments in the sun’s embrace. To get here, Myrna led us through deep woods where the sun rarely reaches the forest floor, as if time itself is hiding under the litter of needles and cones. To bring us to dawn.
Now Myrna unerringly leads us back. There’s not much of a trail to speak of, and everything looks different the other way about. Smells the same, apparently. Myrna never skips a beat. It’s chill and damp, but I can still feel the warmth on my cheeks, note the spring in even Avatar’s step as Myrna takes us home. Horatio ambles behind almost gracefully, as if the years the two old dogs seem to have shed have been gifted to him. A walk to remember.
When we step inside we find a household in chaos. In honor of our possible reunion with our folks, Ollie’s decided to make a Big Breakfast Like Dad Used to Cook. Indeed. There are pancakes. There are potatoes. A mountain of scrambled eggs. There is what looks like a pound of bacon frying in the skillet. Katyana and I are both vegans. Whoever thoughtfully stocked the fridge obviously wasn’t informed of this fact.
The dogs are dazed with passionate longing for whatever shit that is simmering in the pan. It’s been some intense moments for Horatio—Car Window, Forest, Dawn, and now Bacon! But even Myrna isn’t blasé about the aroma of fatty, salty bacon in the air. She’s chattering like she used to do in her youth, and I have to smile. This is my brother. He’s just like Dad. We both are.
“Tell your wife,” Ollie says, “that you will have some of this perfectly fried bacon in Dad’s honor.” Ollie’s been talking about Dad a lot, like he really might see him again, get a second chance to get things right. Maybe alien parents should stay dead like normal parents do. Ollie’s spent decades getting over a few things about them and finally seems at peace with them. I’m afraid if they show up, they’ll only piss him off again, and all that counseling will have been for naught. Horatio is about eye level with the pan. His drool streams to the kitchen floor. Ollie looks down at him. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Might as well think about it, Horatio,” I say. “I’m not having any.”
“Stan, nobody lives forever.”
“How about longer? Is that okay with you? I’m not having any.”
“What about you?” he asks Katyana.
“I love you, Ollie, but no thanks, and please don’t ever cook bacon in our shared kitchen again.”
He likes the “Ollie” from her, who wouldn’t, the way she purrs it? But he’s standing there with a platter of bacon fried to perfection just like Dad taught us, dying to serve it to somebody, but there’s no one to serve.
Then for the thousandth time I discover that I do indeed have the perfect son. He steps up. “I’ll have some, Uncle Oliver,” he says. “How about BLTs? I like the name, but I’ve never had one. Are they good?”
Uncle Oliver beams. “Dylan, allow me to show you how to make the perfect BLT.” Exactly what Dad would say. Me too. Dylan uses the make-a-perfect-whatever line with his friends, mostly girls who have a crush on him, often older by a year or two and nearly always taller.
Katyana and I retire to our room, leaving them to their uncle-nephew moment. Dylan’s never eaten flesh since he met a friend’s pet pig Sophia, and they hung out for the better part of the afternoon, wandering around the property together, a small Hanover farm, mostly wooded. Dylan was seven. “Sophia showed me around,” he said. After Sophia, he shuddered at the thought of meat, especially pork, but here he is, stepping up for his ancient Uncle Oliver.
This makes Katyana and me feel like such good parents we make love in our new bed, in our new room, in our new lives. That’s how the day goes, one big happy family. Katyana goes to the lab—her lab—and returns with a dazzling slideshow of the first batch of artifacts she’ll be studying, some of the oldest to have emerged from the abyss. We gather around her and eat dessert as she tells us about each one. She’s where Dylan gets his earnest from, his big heart. Every single moment. Everything is perfect.
It’s the middle of the night. The room is bathed in moonlight. I can’t sleep. I listen to Katyana’s breathing like the ocean waves coming in, going out. What a glorious sound! My life is impossible, and yet here it is. Not a dream come true. My dreams were never this good.
A shadow crosses the window—a bear or a ghost from the abyss or a trick of the moonlight. I slip out of bed, go to the window, and look out. It’s the field the dogs and I traversed at dawn, and now it’s bathed in moonlight. There’s someone standing at the threshold of the woods, looking right at me.
He turns and disappears into the woods with the slow, measured pace of someone very old but still strong, rather like I imagine myself. I scurry around, throwing on clothes, desperate not to wake anyone, and I almost get away with it. I’m trying to find my left shoe when a familiar snout gets in my face. What are you up to? Myrna wants to know. Don’t even think about finding your way through those woods without me. She has my left shoe. Good thing animals don’t think, or I’d suspect a plot.
Pretty soon I’m trooping across the moonlit field, with—you guessed it—three dogs. Avatar’s dead on his feet—he likes his sleep—and Horatio keeps running into things. He’s excited though—the pack’s bringing him along on another adventure! I had no choice. He was about to wake up the whole household, and that’s the last thing I wanted to happen. Just like when I was a kid and Dad would phone home from the road, I wanted him to myself.
Maybe it’s only because I’ve been this way before, but these woods seem easier to navigate in the moonlight, like that’s what they were made for. Or maybe it’s my eyes, pupils wide, that see more in this half light, but somehow, I’m not afraid.
Myrna veers off on a side trail I didn’t notice this morning, even more obscure than the one we’ve been on. We stumble through a scrubby patch and emerge into an old growth forest of enormous towering trees. The moon is directly overhead, enormous. It’s almost blinding.
When I look back down to the forest floor, there’s Mom sitting cross-legged in the dirt, the dogs swirling around her, licking her face as she furiously pets them all. I let them have their moment.
I need a moment too. My mother, who’s been dead for quite a long time, is sitting before me. She always sat cross-legged—on the floor, on the sofa, anywhere she could manage it. On a blanket in front of her are artifacts from the abyss. Alien artifacts.
“I brought these for Katyana,” she says. “She’ll find them here in the morning when she comes this way. Dad and I are quite taken with her. You’re a lucky man.”
“I’m an alien.”
“I’d say those are one and the same, dear.”
She looks around at the surrounding woods with a pleasant smile. “You know your father, Stan. He likes to roam, but he always comes home to me.” She spreads her hands above the weird array before her. “C’mon, guess which one’s the thraxle.” Another lesson for her bright, devoted son.
“I have no idea,” I say.
“Use your intuition.”
I don’t argue with Mom about intuition, whose importance for her was an article of faith. I just point.
“See there? You’re right. You should listen to your mother.”
“I always do. It’s good to see you, Mom. You haven’t changed.”
“Nonsense. Everything changes. It’s good to see you too.” She hands me the thraxle. “Go ahead, try it. You hold it like this and twist it one way and then the other. It will show you the fork that lies just ahead.”
“In time,” she says, like I should’ve figured that much out already.
“You said Katyana will find these things in the morning. What will bring her here?”
“You’re getting ahead of yourself, dear. The thraxle first. I think it will answer most of your questions.”
I twist the thraxle to the right and it answers the question I ask myself often: If I were to die right now, how would that be?
I see it unfold in an instant, like an intense recollection triggered by some scent or object: Into the abyss, like Simon, the dogs and I disappear. Katyana and Dylan’s grief is overwhelming. They remember me fondly as a wonderful influence on their lives they’ll never forget. They both prosper and love many others and cherish and celebrate my memory. Katyana passes through these woods searching for me, stumbling across the artifacts Mom left for her. Her research on them, her lone solace during a time of inconsolable grief, forms the cornerstone of her brilliant career.
I twist the thraxle to the left and I don’t die right now but much, much later, defying the odds, but I’ve taken a bad fall and can’t get around on my own anymore and can’t give Katyana and Dylan anything in return for their caretaking even as it weighs them down and saps the energy from their lives because I scarcely know who I am anymore, much less who anyone else is. I become an insufferable burden. When I die they celebrate their freedom in their hearts and only wish it had come sooner, living with dreadful guilt for the rest of their lives for having such feelings about someone they’d once loved so much. The artifacts lie deep within the woods, undiscovered.
That’s some tool, that thraxle.
I leave Horatio with Mom. She says she’ll show him the way home. She wants to see her other son, she says, so she can tell him the fine thing her youngest has done. I’m sure Ollie will be delighted to hear all about it. I hold her tight and tell her I love her, and we both cry a little.
The dogs, turns out, have been ready for a long time to take this journey but have been waiting on me. There’s nothing hesitant about Myrna’s brisk gait. She’s moving like she used to when I’d take her down to the river, never pulling at the lead exactly, but pushing me to walk a good deal faster than I might otherwise. It’s been a while. It feels good. I wish I had the chance to say good-bye to those I love, but things don’t work that way, do they?
I can feel it up ahead. It’s close. My intuition, like Mom said. The abyss. I tell the dogs it’s not far, as if that’s news. Myrna looks over her shoulder one last time to reassure me she knows the way. I guess we all do whether we want to or not. Maybe Simon’s right. Maybe we’re all going home to become the aliens we truly are. I have no regrets. I have loved this planet.
So much love.
Everything is perfect.
“Once More Into the Abyss” copyright © 2016 by Dennis Danvers
Art copyright © 2016 by Chris Buzelli