I sit frozen on the end of the bed. Reading the letter over and over, perpetually thinking I miss-read it. After the 10th time I let the letter slip from my fingers and fall to the ground. My brain has never worked this hard. Trying it’s absolute best to piece together a puzzle that’s missing half of the pieces.
“It’s a joke. That’s it…Ethan is alive and fucking with me. But why would he…? He wouldn’t…He knows what’s at stake more than I do. He has to be dead…So who wrote the letter?”
Knock, knock, knock.
Russ peeks his head through the door. “Hey I’ve been looking for you.”
I turn my head and stare at him. I feel too overwhelmed to process anything, even who is talking to me.
I shake my head and try to my best to pull out of the fog. “Yeah.” Still not quite there.
“Everyone’s waiting for you.”
“Everyone?” Still struggling to grasp any thought or concept.
“Yeah it’s 7:30. Time for our production meeting.”
Production meeting? “Yeah, give me a minute.” I head to the bathroom.
“I will wait out here.” Russ says as he steps out and closes the door.
In the bathroom I look at myself in the mirror. I splash water on my face and am finally able to push through the fog. “Okay Aaron. Pull it together.” I say to the haggard face staring at me. “No one can know about the note.” I nod to myself and head out the door. I grab a clean shirt out of Ethan’s dresser and hide the letter under his crisp black t-shirts.
Russ is smoking a cigarette when I walk out onto the porch. “Ready.” I walk out the door and head toward the meeting hall. Russ is at my side, talking non-stop. I don’t even pretend to listen. He eventually realizes this and remains silent for the rest of the trip.
When we reach the door of the meeting hall I realize I have no clue what to do once I’m inside. Russ opens the door and I walk in. As soon as the team sees me all conversations stop and twelve heads rotate and lock on to me. In the center of the room is a large table. I go to sit in my usual seat and Russ calls my name and nods toward the head of the table
“Right.” I go to the head of the table and look at the chair for a moment, knowing I am not ready to sit here, but knowing that there is no other option. “Jeremy, give us an update.”
Jeremy starts talking immediately as I sit in the chair. He is the head of our Control Team. He has spies scattered around the camp that report everything they see and hear to them. What he does is critical to our success.
“A lot of people are scared and sad. They honestly don’t know what to do or think.”
“Who do they think will lead them?”
“Some say you, some think someone will be delivered by The Light. Some think no one. There have been a few people that think that wasn’t supposed to happen and are talking of…leaving.”
“We have them isolated. There were only three or four. They are spending three days in Reflection Chambers.”
“Good. Did anyone agree with them?”
“No. Carmen was able to end the discussion before anyone joined in.”
I sit silent trying to come up with a plan on how to move forward, and come up with nothing. “Okay…so Ethan is dead…which was not what I wrote.” This is the best that I can come up with. “Anyone have any ideas?” I look around at the team, not expecting anything.
“Aaron?” I hear a tiny voice from the end of the table and see a hand raised.
“I…I think I have a plan.” She says, her voice the sound of insecurity.
“You have a plan? Let’s hope it’s better than your last contribution.” I can see in her face that it is taking everything that she has not to burst into tears. “Go ahead.”
“Well I was thinking we could do a week of silence?” It’s just as much a question as it is a statement. “Tell everyone that in order to prepare for our new leader they need to spend a week in meditation.”
In my head I see clouds parting and sun shining through complete with a chorus of angels.
“Yes!” I point at Alice and stand. “That…we are doing that!” I look around the table nodding like an idiot at everyone my finger still pointed at Alice. “Zoe, make the announcement. Tomorrow we will start on scripts.”
“On it.” Zoe says and starts writing in her notebook.
“Good job Alice! This almost makes up for that guy you killed.” Without another word I head out the door and go to my cabin.
Behind me I hear the door of the cabin open. “Hey Aaron! Wait up!”
“Fuck off Russ!” I say over my shoulder as I start jogging into the woods.
After walking for an amount of time that I could only ball park, I was finally able to begin to organize my thoughts and normalize my breathing. I wandered into an old outdoor sanctuary where we used to meet when we came here on retreats, before we bought the land. I take a seat on one of the benches, resting my elbows on my knees, staring blankly at the mound of ash in the circle of stones where we used to have campfires.
That wasn’t so long ago, not really. The first time we came here was…8 years ago? Or is it 9 now? In less than 10 years we went from a group of a dozen or so volunteers to one of the 10 largest cults in the country, unless you use my definition of the word, then we are whatever 10 plus most Christian denominations is.
Everything has changed since then. Hell, everything has changed since 12 hours ago. I am more mentally exhausted than I have ever been in my life. Too many problems running through my mind, too much at stake. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice that grows louder by the minute just shouts “RUN!”. He makes a compelling argument.
I am 80% sure that is the correct answer, but I know I can’t, no, won’t do that. The worst part is I have no idea why the hell not. I don’t believe any of this bullshit. Most of this crap is a result of Ethan and myself going on Mescaline fueled camping trips with a tape recorder. The best way to make people believe what your saying is if you have believed it first. We would listen to those tapes for hours writing down ever nuance in our voice, every dramatic pause. After weeks of rehearsing could recite every bit down to the last….
“Shit.” I say to myself. “That’s the answer!” I leap up from the bench and head toward the cabin almost at a jog. That’s how I figure out how to move forward, Mescaline! I just have to make myself believe that I am the new messiah.
I reach my old cabin and hurdle over the two steps onto the porch and rush through the screen door. I open the top dresser drawer and pull it out of the track and flip it over on my bunk. On the under side of the drawer is…nothing? I rummage through the drawer that was below it, maybe the tape just came undone. Nothing. Someone stole my drugs. But no one could have known where to find it.
After tearing most of my cabin apart I give up the search. I pack my things in my duffle bag and head toward Ethan’s cabin, my new cabin.
When I step off the porch from my left I hear “Aaron! Wait up.” Accompanied by the pounding of footsteps. Russ reaches me and bends over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. “Dude…we need to talk.” He stands upright and gulps in as much oxygen as he can.
“Not now. I have to do something.”
“No shit, there is a lot to do. The team stayed after you left trying to find a way to spin this.”
“Nothing inspiring. This is bigger than anything we have done and with no planning. Our strategy team is trying to desperately to change gears but it’s not easy. Do you have a plan yet?”
“Yes...well, maybe. Have you been in my cabin?” I square off against Russ trying to read his expression.
“What? No I haven’t been in your fucking cabin. Why?”
“I lost something. I will figure it out. You don’t have any Mescaline do you?”
“I have shrooms.” He offers.
“That will have to do.” I say mostly to myself. “Bring them by Ethan’s cabin.”
“Yeah, okay. What’s your plan?”
“I have to go to The Cavern for a few days.”
“A few days?! We only have a week. How are we going to make this happen without our head writer?”
“Don’t worry about it, I will handle the writing. Plan a ceremony for Tuesday evening. I will need some effects, come up with something flashy. Make sure no one breaks the silence until then. Got it?” I turn around before he can answer. “I need those shrooms, Russ!”.
By the time I get to the cabin it has already started getting dark. I decide to stay here the night and leave first thing in the morning. While I get everything ready for my trip Russ stops by and brings me the shrooms. I rush him out the door and lock it behind him. I sit on the bed and and feel exhaustion crash over me like a wave. I manage to kick off my boots and then I am out.
I wake suddenly from a deep sleep, my eyes snap open and a feeling of panic passes over me for a moment or two. I sit up and be and look out the window, it’s still pitch black. I lay back down and stare up at the ceiling, my mind beginning to race again.
From the back corner I hear the striking of a match and see a flare of light. I shoot up in bed. I man stand in the corner of the room with his back is to me. He is wearing a dark suit, that looks expensive. He lights a candle that sits on the small breakfast table.
“Hello?” I say, hardly above a whisper. The sound of my heart beating is deafening in my ears.
Ethan turns to face me and has a seat at one of the two chairs at the table.
“Hey Aaron, can we talk?” He gestures to the seat opposite his.
I look at him puzzled for several seconds before slowly getting out of the bed. Then I realize that this is a dream. I am lucid dreaming. I used to try and train myself to do this. I have only been successful a handful of times. I try to fly across the room to the table. Nothing happens.
I look at Ethan, confused. “Why can’t I fly?”
“Because you aren’t dreaming.”
“You mean this is real?”
“In a sense. You are still asleep but this is not a projection of your mind.”
“I don’t understand. Are you alive?”
“Not physically. My body is dead but I exist on another plane now.”
“What in the fuck are you talking about? You are dead or you aren’t. This is obviously a projection of my subconscious.”
“I know it’s hard to believe but I am not a projection of your subconscious. I chose to be here right now. I chose to wake you. While this is happening in your mind I assure you it is quite real. Come sit down.” Again he gestures to the chair.
I cross the room and ease myself into the chair, never taking my eyes off of him.
“I know you don’t believe me.”
“No shit.” I spit back.
“If I were in your position I wouldn’t either. I will prove it to you though.”
“Okay let’s see it.”
“What could I possibly do right now? Anything I do now you would assume it is your subconscious?”
“You are going to The Cavern, yes?” I nod my head, my face the definition of skepticism. “When you get there, stand at the mouth of the cave. To your right there is a rock sticking out of the ground, it looks like a camel.”
“Yeah, I this is all information that I have.”
“Shut up and listen. If you stand at the head of the camel and look away from the cave you will see a small pine tree about 10 yards away, only two or three feet tall. Go to the tree and pull it up, it’s just in a metal stand that sits a few inches below the ground. Under the tree is an old ammo box with a combination lock on it. The combo is 19-8-4. Does that number mean anything to you?”
I search my brain and come up with nothing. “No.”
“Good. I don’t want you thinking you know this number. Proof and all that. Remember the number okay? 19-8-4. Got it?”
“I got it.” Without realizing it I have started to believe what Ethan is saying.
“Open the box. There is something in it for you. Only you.” He stares into my eyes to drive the point home.
“Only me, fine.”
“I promise this will all make sense Aaron. I will be in touch.” He blows out the candle and the cabin disappears. From the darkness I hear “Don’t take the shrooms. You won’t need them.”
I wake up in my bed, the sun shining into my eyes. I lay there for a while thinking about my dream. Was it a dream? It doesn’t feel like a dream. It feels like, a conversation. I certainly remember more about it than any dream I have ever had.
“19-8-4.” I say out loud.
I change quickly, grab my backpack, and rush out the door. Normally it takes 30 minutes to get to The Cavern. I make it in half the time. I just have to know if that was real. It doesn’t make sense but I have to know.
When I get there I toss my bag down and run to the camel shaped rock. Sure enough there stands a small pine tree right where Ethan said it would be. I grab the small tree and it comes up easily. I remove the loose soil and pull out the ammo box.
I start spinning the dial on the lock, saying the numbers out loud as I reach them. “19…8…4.”
Click. The lock pops open and I toss it to the side. Inside the box is a brown leather journal. On the front is a post-it note that says ‘Believe me now?’. I rip the note off and crumple it in my hand.
I look back at the journal and see that it has been branded. Staring back up at me is a single eye set in the center of a flaming sun.