Oxide Of The Void

(Originally seen on melrosehistory.org August 11, 1996)

Marlene was only 17 when she was spiritually awakened, when her eyes were opened to the cosmos and she knew there would be no going back, no returning to the way things had been.

It had been the early spring of 1967 and she had been fighting with her parents- who, like many residents of Melrose, New Mexico, were firmly ingrained in the social issues of the day, kept the TV on for constant news updates, subscribed to the large city newspapers for accurate, up-to-the-minute information on the situation in Vietnam, which seemed, to Marlene at least, to be unfolding now more than ever. She wanted a way out, an exit from the bloodshed and the dirty looks her father gave to her over the dinner table- which was now only a place of silent consumption. Far from the home she had known in her halcyon youth, her father now gave her hour-long lectures on which clothes to buy and how to put up her hair while her mother idly knitted and gazed out the window so as to avoid this raging domestic turbulence.

Marlene often snapped back at her father during these disputes, and just as often marched up to her room on the second floor and locked him out. And she would sit, and gaze out at the quiet desert night, and leave them to brood downstairs. With the school year out she had little to do in the mornings save sit on the porch and observe the banal activity of Melrose over the rose pink banister. She had insufferably idle hands.

So it was that after one such disagreement, she had walked out onto the porch to gather her thoughts and catch some fresh air, while in the lit room behind her shoulder her father had stuck his hands into his pockets and given up. And she had walked out onto the lawn and felt the cool blades of grass as down the block a lonely pickup truck rounded the corner and roared out of sight, and one by one the lights in the houses across the street were extinguished.

She noticed Pete, her boyfriend, standing by the hedge and staring up at the constellations, which in Melrose were far more visible than they were over in Santa Fe or Albuquerque. Without saying a word, she put her arm around his waist and they remained like that for several minutes, silent, until Pete raised his arm and pointed.

“That one there is called Antares,” he said. Marlene squinted and noticed a bright red dot at the edge of Pete’s fingertip.

They started walking to the south, with no particular destination in mind. Marlene wondered what Pete was doing up this late. He was wearing his best shoes and his hair was combed over, and a light breeze from the northeast consumed them both as they walked further and further away from Marlene’s house, which she knew she wanted to get far away from, and fast. There was something convenient about Pete showing up right now, and here. Any port in a storm, she reckoned. They made their way to the end of the block, which opened onto a vast expanse of quiet rural fields, lined by trees which swayed and vibrated ever so slightly beneath the pale crescent moon. Pete took her hand and guided her along a rough path through the tall sheath, and the streetlamps of Melrose faded behind them as they wandered on.

They approached a barn which appeared empty, isolated from anything else by miles of land, old and rustic and broken down. They both entered, she grasped the rungs of the old ladder and made her way up to the hayloft. The hay, though ancient, glistened in the warm summer ambience, and Pete swung himself over the precipice until they were both nestled in the cool mulch. A symphony of grasshoppers encircled the place.

“I shouldn’t be out here,” Marlene said, hesitant. “My folks will know.” Pete raised a finger to her lips and then retrieved something from his pocket. It was a small cloth satchel, and a lighter, and he opened the strings of the satchel up and poured a substance that smelled like old hickory onto his palm. He offered her some, and she accepted it. He held the flame to it and it erupted, and then he showed her how she could inhale the fumes. Tilted her head back to ensure the process was performed just so.

As she inhaled the world fell away and the roof of the barn became transparent and she rose, levitating, above the barn, as did Pete, who floated fifty feet into the night sky, into that vast sea of starlight. She used her arms to swim into the void, and soon the ground below became transparent, and they were suspended in midair with nothing but the constellations and the flaming sun and the cold vacuum of space. And he brushed her hair out of her eyes and they held hands there, awestruck in wonder, as the planets rotated and the moon behind them went through all its phases in 30 seconds.

And then they were back in the loft. Marlene took a deep breath, unsure of what to say. Next to her, Pete reclined, his hands interlocked behind his head, and he looked over at her and grinned, and then she picked up one lone strand of straw and twirled it between her fingers, thinking about what it was they had both just witnessed.

“It’s okay, Mar,” he said. “You needed that. I can tell. You’ve been playing it safe all these years, never on the edge. You need new experiences, new things in life. I get it.” Then they both sat up and gathered their bearings and leaned against the rear wall.

“I like the simple things,” she said. “Living here and now, in the present. With you. We don’t need that stuff, we don’t need it to overstimulate our brains, to subtract from the experience. I’ll always remember this exact moment in time, Pete.” And with that she gently plucked the satchel from his grasp and tossed it out the window and it sailed like a parachute and nestled itself in the scrub, and they embraced.

They fell asleep sometime after that, and in the morning Pete told her about a group of people who thought as they did, who lived a few towns over on the outskirts. And he said that he had been there, that was where he had acquired the stuff, and he had witnessed unparalleled sights and wonders of the new age, and that if she wanted she could leave Melrose behind and start a new life with him. And thirty minutes later they had long since departed from the barn and they caught a ride on a freight car and Marlene saw Melrose become nothing more than a speck on the horizon before even the last vestiges of it became little more than a phantom recollection. She was here, in the immediate present, the thundering clatter of the wheels and spokes, and Pete bracing himself against the wall so as not to fall over as the locomotive sped along toward some faraway utopia in the golden dawn.

The place Pete had mentioned was located at what appeared to be an old cattle ranch, fenced in on all sides. People milled about in the noontime heat, wearing light flower shirts and necklaces with multicolored beads. Marlene had never seen so many people so busy before, engaged in activities which seemed to her to be productive and fulfilling.

One woman was plucking fresh greens from what appeared to be a communal garden, a young boy was tossing grain into a chicken coop, an old man walked around singing a folk ballad on an acoustic guitar. Pete introduced her, one by one, to most of them, and they instantly took a liking to her, and told her that as long as she put in work in the fields and contributed something of value to the community, she was welcome to stay.

Within a week, Marlene had acclimated to her new surroundings, surprisingly well, and she spent every day from dusk till dawn plucking carrots from the rich mineral soil and having long conversations with the commune’s inhabitants. Oftentimes a bonfire would be lit in the center of the grounds, and they would sit in formation around the licking flames and rising embers, eyes aglow with the powder that smelled like old hickory and the promise of a new period of enlightenment and untapped potential.

Marlene knew the place and was at all times in the here and now, the immediate present, tuned in and not necessarily tuned out, and Pete was there to guide her every step of the way, an anchor to the life she had departed, an echo of stability as these new processes and practices became routine. She did as she was told- anything to reconnect with the world, to forget about the atrocities overseas, at home and abroad.

And after two weeks, at precisely 8 P.M. Pete took her into a room she had never been in before, located near the rear of the property, and they sat down opposite each other in wooden chairs, by candlelight. Only the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner could be heard. Pete stared at her, head nested between his index finger and thumb, as if he were trying to make sense of her. Then he lit another candle, a larger one, and set it on a coffee table between them.

“What’s this about?” she asked.

“It’s something we do here,” he said. “I started a couple days ago. They told me you need to start. The sooner we start, the better.”

“I’m game,” she replied. “What is it we’re supposed to do in here?”

“You tell me your feelings,” he explained. “Your desires, your wants and needs. Anything that pops into your head, really. Like that word association game. Except instead of words, just a stream of consciousness. Anything at all. Start.” When he said that, Marlene’s mouth opened, and the words came out of her like a snake, they coiled and emanated from her. She started slowly at first, but like the thundering locomotive that had brought them to this place they gained speed and clarity, the means with which she communicated improved in the first five minutes alone. Paul sat, contemplative.

In that hour she said more than she ever had, talked about her aspirations and dreams, of her past and future, droned on about her preoccupations, her hang-ups, her hobbies. It was refreshing, this form of psychotherapy, and though Pete wasn’t a licensed psychiatrist as far as she knew it was good to get some of these things off her chest, if at least for the time being. A weight had been lifted. When the hour was up, Marlene heard a faint -click- from somewhere behind her, and Pete immediately rose to his feet and whisked her outside.

“That was fantastic,” she exclaimed. “I really felt like-” but he held his finger up to her lips and brushed her hair back, and escorted her back to her room.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “Save it for tomorrow.”

And she did, and every day at precisely 8 P.M. once the planting and harvesting and watering had been executed in a satisfactory manner they would go in that room and she would open her heart to Pete- who sat, legs crossed, merely listening to her, and she thought he really cared, that he really did enjoy listening to her, that she had important things to say and all that mattered was that they reached his ears.

She told him about her grandfather’s funeral, and how it had felt to see his casket lowered. She talked at length about the intricacies of nail polish, about how she had scoured the library for magazine articles about how the stuff was formulated, about her subsequent passion for chemistry. About how it felt to live in a small town like Melrose, where nothing ever really changed, time seemed to hang still and in perpetuity, and how things had sped up since moving to the commune, how in these whirlwind days every single moment was spent doing something genuinely fulfilling. And then came the faint noise from behind the wooden chair she sat in, and Pete would escort her out, thank her, and she would sleep, to repeat it all the next day.

She wondered how Pete was able to absorb all this information so effortlessly, that given all the thoughts she poured onto him he must have had a truly expansive and stunning intellect, one with a tremendous storage capacity. As the days grew into weeks, however, she noticed that during their evening sessions Pete was less talkative, more removed and distant. Still she pressed on, revealing to him intimate details about her personal life, things she probably wouldn’t have told him even if they were properly married. Things she had only really considered late at night on the thin line between awareness and slumber. She assumed that eventually, they would run out of things to discuss, that her knowledge of the world would be tapped, but strangely this never came to fruition.

After a long day milking the cows and feeding the chickens, and pulling up turnips and cilantro, conversation was really the only form of entertainment to be had here. The people were friendly, but they knew less than Marlene, or Pete for that matter- they were simple country folk, many of them without a proper education, and many of them had lived here for a decade or more. Sometimes she caught them throwing wary glances in her direction.

By the time May rolled around, she was tired and overworked. The initial satisfaction from the garden and stables had been replaced by a kind of dull monotony, and when the hickory stuff was exchanged around in the evening Marlene politely declined. Even if she did take the stuff, it certainly wouldn’t fix her mood. She was bored out of her head.

Marlene began to wonder if leaving her hometown had been the best choice. Sometimes, on clear nights when the moon was less pronounced, obscured by cirrus clouds, she thought she could just make out the sparkling glitter of Melrose somewhere to the East, and she wondered what her parents were up to- whether they had informed the police, what her mother assumed had happened to her. Then as quickly as these thoughts came they were gone, and she was in the immediate present, the here and now, the substantive.

In the evenings came the candlelight sessions with the stream-of-consciousness thought, the unfurling ribbon of language that she expunged effortlessly. Pete’s eyes were shrouded in darkness, and she fancied he looked like a mystic fortune-teller she had seen on a movie poster once, and told him as much when the idea arose in her mind. He said nothing, remained perfectly quiet, and allowed her to proceed. The subject soon changed from fortune tellers to predetermination to the concept of fate vs. free will, and Pete merely stared at her as she went on and on, constructing elaborate prose in her head.

She wondered what exactly this process accomplished, given how Pete rarely displayed signs of enjoyment. It was, on some level, a form of therapy- a release of emotions, an exodus of tension from the system. It was helpful to have someone to talk to and confide secrets in. It was likely for her own good, she thought. Merely a new way of mapping the mind.

The commune was vast, covering multiple acres, much of it farmland, and despite open access to many of the fields there was one area she was forbidden from entering- a large shed with a padlock on the door, near her room. Sometimes when it was very late she would catch brief glimpses of people entering and exiting, but they all had keys and she didn’t have any key. She assumed it was some sort of storage shed, with food and tools and other basic utilities, and that in all honesty she was probably too young to distribute those items fairly.

The pace of life here was dedicated exclusively to the direct observation of the immediate. There was very little discussion of the future, or the past, and the war in Vietnam was only mentioned within the context of something else. These people- vagabonds and rascals all- were so attuned with the sensibilities of the climate. Marlene, being a history buff, could hardly understand the preoccupation with chasing trends and fads. She found some of the contemporary styles silly, and mentioned as much to Pete during their sessions. He said nothing.

She wanted to know what was in the shed. Night after night, she saw light filtering into her window. But the shed remained locked during the day, and she was under the watchful eye of the Commune’s residents, and all she had the energy to do was to pick the vegetables and fall into a long and unbroken slumber, awakening to the rooster’s cheerful crow.

One night in June, while they were on their way to the session room, she asked Pete what was kept in the shed. It held some sort of magnetic spell over her, she obsessed over it every day and the fact that everyone else could enter and she couldn’t had been gnawing at her.

“Don’t worry about it,” was all he said, and she stopped holding his hand. Pete had changed somehow since their arrival- his hair was now coated in dirt and he wore a constant scowl, a reminder that, perhaps, he had outgrown his former self, that the blissful Melrose innocence had been washed out of him like dye from wool. And now when he leaned back n the wooden chair, and Marlene heard the faint click from the reverberant chamber, his sunken sockets resembled not those of a clairvoyant, but those of a deathly pale skull.

She told herself the first week of June that she was only imagining this sudden darkness that had set in, that it was alright and that, if she wanted to, she could leave the Commune and return to her family, and that there would be few repercussions. She could even tell them about Pete, have him sent to prison on charges of abduction. But no. She had to stay here. That was the long and short of it. She had to know what was in that shed before she could even consider leaving.

Something else struck her- none of the other people seemed to undergo the sessions. Surely they would need to apply them to each other, yet when she and Pete were holed up in the inner sanctum, the chamber of revelations, most of the inhabitants were still sitting around the central bonfire, their faces aglow with dry timber.

On the tenth of the month, after a particularly long session, she said goodbye to Pete outside the door and went into her room. She looked outside, and it seemed Pete had also left, there were only the buildings and the shadows cast by their doors and the cold gravel path leading to that mystery of mysteries. She wore heavy boots as she stepped outside into the warm summer heat, boots which could kick the door in.

She applied a massive amount of force to the hinge- more force than she reckoned she was capable of producing- and it swung open and the lock clattered onto the ground, and she gasped and stepped inside and began whirling around, twisting her head from one extreme to the other, to be sure that what she was seeing was actually what was there.

Shelves and shelves of compact cassette tapes.

More cassette tapes than Marlene thought there could be in the world, an incomprehensible amount, hundreds of thousands of millions of feet of ferric oxide tape. There were no farming implements, no shovels, no compost. Just bare metal shelves bursting forward with stacks and rows and heaps of cassette tapes.

And in the back of the room was a shrine composed of several television sets stacked atop one another, cords and tangled wires running down the front, all turned on and all broadcasting something different- on one, some sort of Soviet meeting with men grinning at each other. On another, a baseball game. On yet another, a weekday sitcom. The haphazard arrangement of these electronic prisms was shocking, and bizarre, and entirely out of place for a rural commune, much less one which didn’t have any indication of a power supply.

In the weeks prior, she had used no electricity- there was no telephone, no record player, not even any battery-powered devices. Yet here was this unholy temple, which stood against everything she had thought the commune was for. While these people advocated for a return to the land, they had nonetheless indulged in some sort of technological hedonism- a freakish obsession with these broadcasts, perhaps, an insatiable desire to reconnect with the outside world. But why multiple television sets? Why all these cassettes?

She spotted a tape deck on a small desk near the front. With trembling fingers, she grabbed one of the tapes, knocking five out of their cases, and inserted it into the player. She hit the button and put on the headphones, and was alarmed to hear her own voice over the omniscient tape hiss- her own dialogue, as she told Pete of the first time she had seen him, at school.

And then she was interrupted by Pete in the present, Pete in the here and now, this altered Pete, who stood silhouetted in the frame of the kicked-in entrance, leaning casually against the post and staring at her with that unseen visage. She tried to scream, but he raced forward and clasped a hand over her mouth, and removed the headphones, gingerly setting them on the table. Sitting her down on the floor, making motions as if to calm her down.

“You shouldn’t have done this, Mar,” he said with a flat, lifeless tone. “I’ll have to tell them what you’ve done. We’ll have to fix that lock.” She choked back unhinged sobs through his unwashed fingers and shoved him away. He crashed against the shelf and a whole barrage of Marlene’s voice landed on his head.

“I shouldn’t have done THIS?” she shrieked, not caring if they heard. “What have you done? Pete, those were private things I told you- things I didn’t mean for anyone else to hear- things I thought were special, just between you and I- you can’t record someone without their consent, Pete! For fuck’s sake! It just isn’t ethical!” He rubbed his head, got up, and she failed to scream as he retrieved a switchblade from his shirt pocket and held it to her throat, grinning with a sort of manic disposition. In that one moment- as the steel of the dime-store apparatus grazed the flesh of her neck and his sunken eyes grew even more cold, calculated, and distant, Marlene saw the true face of evil. It had been with her all along.

Pete grabbed some duct tape from an unseen nook in the shelf and methodically adhered her to the cold concrete floor, then pointed at the array of television sets, as if they would somehow explain what he had done- how he had lied to her, had manipulated her, how he had now threatened her life and her sanity.

“I knew you wouldn’t understand, Mar,” he seethed. “What we were trying to do here. That’s why I didn’t tell you. Because it’s beyond your grasp, Hell, it’s beyond my grasp. It’s something none of us entirely understand yet.”

“What we’re trying to do,” he continued, “Is build an ARCHIVE. A collection of information, of knowledge. The trouble is, see, these people aren’t that smart. So they asked me, they said, ‘Pete, if you can get that smart girl down here we’d be much obliged!’ And I DID, Mar. I did. And your every thought- your every sentiment and desire- is now on record.” Marlene knew what the click had been. The loss of her privacy, her sanctity. Her integrity, all gone down the river with the remote deactivation of a plastic switch.

“I’ve SEEN them,” he said, waving his arms around in fury, his face barely alight from the hum and buzz of those cathode squares. “I’ve seen the ANGELS. We’re not sure what the best method is, of reaching them, but we know it has something to do with technology. With recorded media. With stockpiles of film reel. With records. What’s outside that door is all a facade, Mar. a fake front, like in a John Wayne picture. THIS is what we’re focused on, what we dedicate most of our time to. Labeling, ordering your voice. Arranging it to create certain- how shall I say- FREQUENCIES in the air.” As he said this, a sign-off program came on announcing the midnight hour. A military band stood before the New Mexico State Capitol, trumpets blaring, indicating the end of another fulfilling broadcast day in the Eastern half of the state. The Soviet men grinned in wretched ecstasy.

“We’re lucky, Mar,” he said as he once again brought the switchblade to her throat, closer this time, so far she could feel the cold edge. “I don’t think we need you anymore. I think you’ve been tapped out of everything you could possibly think or say. But we’ll get someone else. Someone smart like you. Someone with a lot of potential. Someone who can fill all these tapes.” She bellowed and Pete lurked ever closer, his brow now completely obscuring what had been his eyes, which appeared as though they had long since rotted away.

As she took in the scene she thought would be her last, she noticed something strange. The television sets behind Pete all began to glow brighter, until the room was completely lit, and the static from the stations which had signed off for the night began to leave the boundaries of the screens- off the bottom, the static dripped and congealed like a lava lamp, in streams and puddles it billowed forth, and then Pete stopped what he was doing momentarily as a long, black stump shoved itself through the static barrier.

“Oh JEEZ,” said Pete. The thing was tall, taller than both of them, at least seven feet, its eyes were the hue of rhodochrosite and its eight spindly arms all moved as one in unison. Marlene thought it resembled a giant spider she had seen once at the Melrose movie palace, whose enormous legs stretched across the American southwest. Like any arachnid, this thing had sharp teeth, which glinted in the still-dripping light of the impossible static-

“I’m so, so happy to meet you,” Pete said as he rose to his knees to touch the creature. “Come outside and you can meet the rest of us.” The thing paused for a moment, considered the offer, then a smile came over its unseen countenance and as it did, Marlene smiled in turn.

“i don't think that will be necessary,” the thing said. “we hate you.” It lifted Pete up, he flailed around like a rag doll but he was no match for the brute physical strength of this spindly thing, whatever it was. It looked over at Marlene, who for whatever reason was enjoying the spectacle- and it smiled at her. A big, happy smile. Unseen, yet undeniably present.

Pete squirmed and the thing bore down tighter, until Pete’s neck was compressed and his windpipe gave out. He tried to say something, caught between those hairy incisors- but it was useless, because his neck split clean in two as the thing bit a hole into his sternum, and a torrent of fresh blood joined the puddles of static.

His head careened onto Marlene’s lap. It was about as heavy as a bowling ball. The thing reached over to undo the tape, and she inspected the head- his eyes had indeed long since burned away, there were only pocked craters where they had been. Charred, bleak holes.

Marlene stood at the edge of the commune in the very early morning hours of the eleventh of June, torch in hand. The people slept unaware of what their fate would be- in the morning, the place would be razed to the ground, and their bodies, along with Pete’s, as well as those infernal cassettes, would be entombed within a contemporary Pompeii. For one last time, she surveyed the scenery and took in this unforgivable place. She had to admit, it was almost serene by moonlight.

“burn it,” said the thing, standing behind her, one limb planted confidently on her shoulder. “burn it all. erase it such that nobody will remember it was here.” With the creature’s blessing she sprinted down the hill, kissing every last shack, cabin and bush with the cone of death. Before her eyes, the buildings became alight, their pyrotechnic wonder a final testament to the depravity of those who lived here, who deprived her of her choices in life, her ability to move on into the future and to exercise her free will. Her blindness, her naivete was shattered and permanently discarded as she turned the archival shed, Pete’s body still lying lifeless inside, into a glorious scarlet mountain of fire.

As she ran off into the woods, she turned around one last time and spotted the creature, waving goodbye from the hilltop overlooking the now incinerated property. It slowly disappeared and as it did and Marlene brushed aside the brambles and the branches, she made a solemn oath- that she would never allow herself to be captured by a camera, that she would never allow herself to be filmed, recorded, or proven. She would change her name, move thousands of miles away, erase herself from history and live entirely in the present, in the here and now, with no past record of her existence save her own inextinguishable memory. In effect she would become a ghost without dying.

The future was looking positive, she reflected as she vanished forever into the wilderness. There was a fantastic life waiting out there for her somewhere.