Uma leans against a lamppost on the corner of 3rd and Kinsley. She scratches her jaw just below her right ear, rolls her shoulder a couple times before folding her arms again. The Sun’s getting to that position in the sky – it’s about closing time.
She sighs, and it turns into a yawn.
She stares lazily out at the pedestrians and motorists passing by. So many people. So many places to be. So busy, busy, busy. She drums her fingers on the biceps of her left arm. Scuffs at the sidewalk with the thick treads of her dusty trail-running shoes.
Then she smells something else on the air, under all the exhaust and sweat and sun-baked pavement. Breathes deeper. That’s him, no doubt about it. She looks down toward the Old Trails Museum, sees Elias climbing into his red pickup. He starts it up, adding his own note to the stinking symphony of the downtown atmosphere.
Uma unfolds her arms, hooks her thumbs into the pockets of her jeans. Elias spots her as he pulls up to the corner, turns the steering wheel a little more to his right, and rolls down the passenger window.
“Well, aren’t you a fine sight to see,” he says. “Hop on in.” She cocks an eyebrow at him.
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” but she climbs in anyway. “Turn left. Unless you’ve got someplace better to be.” She shuts her door and buckles her seatbelt.
“Not anymore,” he says with a grin, and hits his blinker before turning onto 3rd Street.
“Yeah, sure.” He flips the switch, and they roll down their windows. “So where are we headed?”
“You’ll see. Just head West outta town and take the Two Guns exit.”
“Right on. Another nature hike?” He smiles expectantly.
“Something like that. You’ll see,” she repeats, returning his smile.
They chat about the day as they drive through town. As they leave the Winslow city limits, Uma bites at her thumbnail and stares out the window.
“You look nervous,” Elias says. “Should I be worried?”
“No, no,” she shakes her head, “I just – I don’t do the ‘car’ thing very often.”
“Really? How do you get around?”
“Bike, sometimes. Running or walking, mostly.”
“Right on. But you seriously don’t have a car?”
“Huh.” They drive in silence for a few moments. “You know,” Elias finally says, “On the highway, it’s actually better for conserving gas to drive with the windows up and the AC on. Wind resistance is way higher with ‘em down.”
“Oh. Well, what about the Freon, though?”
“Well, sure, but it gets used over and over. And at that point, really, we’re burning gas anyway, so…” he trails off.
“No, it’s fine,” she says. “I just hate the smell of it, is the thing.”
“Ah, I see. Well, hey, twenty miles with the windows down won’t kill the planet, I guess.” He shrugs, and they drive on.
After a few minutes, he breaks the silence again. “Penny for your thoughts?” She runs a hand through her short brown hair.
“Just thinking about the ‘car’ thing. Trading Freon for gas, gas for Freon, and all you’re doing is trying to minimize impact. Or maximize mileage, I suppose. But there’s no way we could all just ride bikes, that’d be crazy.” Elias shrugs. “I mean, sure, I guess some people need their cars. You use your truck to haul gear, it’s for your job, it makes sense. Fine. I just - ” she exhales sharply, shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head.
“No, I get it,” he says. “It’s frustrating. The things we do for convenience, at the expense of the long term.” He nods his head, shrugs his shoulders. “And it’s like, even if I go and live totally green, there’s still seven billion other people. Not like I’m seven billion and one, no, one doesn’t even make a bit of difference.” Now it’s his turn to sigh in exasperation.
“Yeah,” she says. “And even then, if we get everybody on the green bandwagon, all it takes is one little community to decide they’re gonna do the industrialization thing again. And whenever there’s a conflict, they’ll just steamroll the other side.”
“It’s like we’d need a whole worldwide green conspiracy just to keep from offing ourselves.”
They drive in silence for some moments more.
“It’s not all bad, though,” Elias says. Uma tilts her head at him. “I mean, there are ways to ‘do technology’ in a green way. Like there’s this one soccer ball that you can kick around, and it has a little thing inside that generates electricity. I read about it on the internet at work, some college girls made it so that kids in Third World countries could study after dark without burning kerosene, which it turns out is terrible for everyone.”
“Huh.” Uma raises her eyebrows. “That’s actually pretty cool.”
“So we can have green technology - ”
“ - We just have to actually do it right.”
“Yeah. But that’s hard,” he says in a mock whine.
“Heh,” she snorts. “Cry some more, why don’cha?”
They banter for the rest of the drive, until Elias turns onto the Two Guns exit ramp. Uma then directs him to an old road that briefly tracks the highway before turning into a dusty trail that rambles off to the North. After about three miles, they enter a small ghost town that runs up to railroad tracks.
“Park anywhere,” she says. He pulls off to the right where a small two-door is parked, just before the buildings. They roll up the windows and get out of the car. “Welcome to Canyon Diablo, Arizona,” she says, gesturing around with wide-open arms. Elias puts his hands in the pockets of his cargo shorts and steps up beside Uma as she walks up the middle of the road. “Home to fourteen saloons, ten gambling houses, four brothels, and two dance halls, all located for your convenience along the main drag, Hell Street.”
“Place looks like it’s seen better days,” Elias says, looking around at the old buildings.
“It’s had its ups and downs,” she says with a shrug. “Only one guy was buried in the graveyard who didn’t die a violent death, so in a way, it’s quite a bit better off now that everyone’s gone.”
“Yikes.” He looks around and takes in the quiet as they stroll down the street.
“Well,” Uma says after the moment passes, “Come on down to the old saloon. Some people I’d like you to meet.” She smiles broadly at him. He cocks an eyebrow at her and smiles quizzically.
Uma gingerly opens the swinging doors and holds one open for Elias. He steps in and sees a sight out of time: an old-fashioned saloon, absurdly well-preserved, every surface covered in thick dust. At a table in the center of the room, two men are playing chess. The man on the white side of the board is a big, black body-builder type, with tied-back dreadlocks and a full beard. The man on the black side of the board is a white guy with an athletic build, almost wiry next to his opponent, with wild blond hair and a scraggly beard of his own. Uma walks right up and stares down at the board. Elias hangs back a couple paces.
The black man strokes his beard and moves a piece, then nods to his opponent, who swiftly slides a bishop and announces, “Check.” The black man strokes his beard again, narrows his eyes.
“All right,” he says. “Let’s leave it for now.” The white man nods, and they turn to face Uma and Elias at last. The black man stares at Elias for a long moment, looking him up and down. “So,” he says at last. He slides his chair back and stands up, and Uma steps back as he walks towards Elias. “I’m Carter.” He sticks out his hand.
“Elias,” he replies. They shake firmly. “Good to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Carter says. “This here’s Willy.” Willy stands, shakes with Elias.
“Willy,” Elias says.
“Elias,” Willy replies.
“What’d she tell you,” Carter asks, after the handshaking’s all done.
“Just that I was gonna meet some of her friends. I guess that’d be you two?”
“Yup,” Carter says with a nod, “And two more. Come on back.”
Carter leads the three of them behind the bar to a storeroom. A man with a thin beard lays on a cot, a large cloth bandage taped down to his chest. His black hair is partially slicked back, but messy and oily, as though he hasn’t had a shower. Elias sniffs the air, and yeah, maybe he hasn’t. At his side is an older man seated in a chair, his long black hair in a ponytail, his long black beard streaked with white. “This here’s Tajo, and that’s Rufio on the cot.” Tajo nods at the mention of his name, Rufio opens his eyes and raises his hand in a little wave.
“Whoah,” Elias asks, “What happened to this guy?”
“I’m right here, man,” Rufio says.
“I – sorry. What happened to you?”
“Same thing that’ll happen to you, if you’re not careful,” he replies.
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?” Elias backs toward the door, looking warily at the other five. Uma places a hand on his arm – he pulls away, she lets him go.
“Elias, it’s not a threat,” she says. He stands in the doorway. Carter sighs.
“Rufio, you gotta watch your fuckin’ mouth.”
“Son of a bitch talks about me like I’m not in the room, and I gotta watch my mouth? The Hell is that?”
“Shut up,” Carter says. “Let’s all have a seat, huh?” Uma and Willy sit down, folding their legs.
“I think I’ll stay standing. You keep talking,” Elias says.
“Suit yourself,” Carter says with a shrug. “It’s like this. We’re sort of a wilderness club. The wilderness is dangerous. Rufio here got cocky, and now he’s paying the price. That’s all he meant by it.”
“All right, fine,” Elias says. “And how do I figure into all of this?”
“Rufio’s dying, man. So we got a slot open. We looked at a few people. You’re the only one who made the cut.”
“And how’s that?”
“Well,” Carter says, “It’s complicated. A lot goes into it. You know how sometimes when you were hanging out with Uma, you felt like you were being watched?” Elias narrows his eyes. Carter sighs. “Look, this is hard to explain. Harder to believe.”
“You worry about explaining,” Elias says, “Leave the believing to me.”
“Maybe I should just take him Inside,” Uma says. “That could make it all clearer.” Carter shrugs.
“If you think he’s ready for it, sure.”
“Elias, come on outside with me,” she says. “Oh, and you two, sit back down to your chess game. But don’t start again until we’re with you, OK?”
“Sure,” Carter says.
Uma leads Elias back out the front of the saloon; Carter and Willy follow behind them, and sit back down at their table. Out in the street, Uma turns to Elias and takes his hands.
“What the Hell is going on,” he asks her.
“Some crazy shit, OK? I just need you to trust me for like fifteen minutes, and I promise you won’t get hurt at all. Is that all right?”
“What’s gonna happen?”
“I could try to tell you, or I could just show you,” she answers. “Right here, right now.”
“All right,” he says, after thinking it over for a moment. “Show me.”
“Close your eyes.” She raises his hands in hers. “And no matter what happens, don’t let go.”
Elias closes his eyes. He hears Uma’s breathing become deep and rhythmic. He feels her pulse through her hands, becomes acutely aware of the blood thrilling through his own veins. After a few moments, his heartbeat synchronizes with hers. He starts, but does not let go, does not open his eyes. There is a shift in the air, something undeniably different but hard to pin down. He concentrates for a moment: It’s like – the Sun doesn’t feel “hotter,” but somehow more intense. Like it’s the same Sun, but I can feel each little ray. And the wind – it’s not blowing harder, but I am more aware of it. Like it’s not just passing over me, but caressing me, wrapping around me and taking its time to make its presence felt. He breathes deep. The sensation is foreign, yet relaxing. He feels a great peace descend upon him, as though his very soul was plunged into deep tranquility.
“Elias,” Uma asks.
“Yes,” he replies.
“Open your eyes.” He does so. The world is the same, yet somehow changed. More vibrant. More beautiful.
“What did you do? What just happened?”
“I took you Inside,” she replies.
“The world. We’re on the Inside of the world.”
“I don’t understand,” he says. He certainly feels the change, but doesn’t understand how it’s an “inside” to anything.
“OK, look. Out there,” she points up with one hand. “What’s that?”
“The sky.” The glorious, shimmering, glowing-blue-with-scattered-sunlight sky.
“And what happens when you go through the sky?”
“You go into space.”
“Right,” she says. “Outer space. And things are different there, aren’t they?”
“Well,” Elias says, pausing to think. “Lots of things are different. There’s no gravity. There’s no atmosphere. There’s no magnetic field.”
“Right! And when you come back in through the sky, then everything works all differently, doesn’t it? You don’t have to worry so much about radiation shielding, but you have to worry more about gravity and air pressure and magnetic fields and such.”
“OK, I’m with you so far.”
“Good. So now, we’re even further inward, where things are even more different. Like being inside your own head: you only see the Outside of other people, but your whole life is being Inside yourself. And those are two very different things. Yeah?”
“Sure,” he says with a nod. She takes his free hand once more.
“All right. So Inside someone’s head, there’s meaning and experience. But from the Outside, all you have are the descriptions and behavior. And for all your life, you’ve only been Inside yourself, looking at the Outside of the world.” He nods at her. “I just brought you Inside the world.” He looks around. Everything looks more vibrant, more beautiful, more connected. He looks at Uma.
“But you still look normal.” He looks down at his hands. “So do I, for that matter.”
“That’s because our Outsides are here, not just our Insides.”
“So you’re telling me that you just physically transported us to another plane of existence?”
“Well,” she stammers, “Not exactly. But yeah, that’s close enough.”
“That sounds like magic,” he says with narrowed eyes.
“So’s going to space,” she says with a shrug. “Just ask any caveman.”
Elias mulls this over for a bit. Everything seems to take on a shimmer as he considers the implications of what sounds impossible, but is plain before his eyes.
“Aww,” Uma coos, “Look at that! You’re spawning a spirit of epiphany!”
“What?” Elias shakes his head, the shimmer fades in and out.
“No, hold still! Whatever you were just thinking, hold onto it!”
OK, he thinks, I’m on another plane of existence. It’s crazy, but here it is. So: now what? There’s magic? No, not magic, this is just how things are. I simply didn’t know it before. Like a caveman contemplating going to the stars. Except here I am, a modern man, experiencing something that must be so basic – yes. An Inside to everything? So – what was it called – pan-psychism? Wow. There’s a “what it’s like” to be everything! That’s crazy!
The shimmer grows stronger, everything seems to sparkle, then it lifts from his eyes. Looking up, he can see the shimmer in the air, a big bubble-looking thing about the size of a beach ball.
“There it is,” Uma says, “Your epiphany!”
“All right, and what on Earth does that mean?”
“OK, so we’re in the realm of meaning here, Inside. We also call it the Spirit Wild, because spirits are more apparent here. And there are spirits of everything – well, not ‘everything’ everything, but almost everything. Everything meaningful.”
“What makes something meaningful or not,” he asks.
“Well, it’s not a hard line, it really depends on how much it means to who’s around. You’ll figure it out, with time. But the more meaningful it is to someone, the more psychic energy it has, and spirits run on that psychic energy. Usually, it’s just enough for a spirit to have its material component – a rock spirit just is the spiritual Inside of a physical rock. But with your epiphany here, the more your mind is blown, the bigger it will get.” And sure enough, as Elias looks up, the sparkling shimmer grows ever larger.
“But just like a rock spirit will wear away as the rock itself wears away,” she continues, “So your epiphany will fade as your mind returns to normal.”
“So – it’s going to die?”
“Not so much ‘die,’ as ‘fade.’ You see, spirits of things are all kind of the same. You, Elias, are a singular individual, so there’s only one spirit of you. That’s your spirit, you are it. Yet at the same time, you also share in the human spirit, and you as a life-form are also part of the life spirit.”
As Elias thinks it over, Uma watches the epiphany over his head shimmer and swell. Everything is connected, he muses, By the things they have in common. “So we’re only separated by our differences?”
“Yeah, in a way. Sort of.” She pauses. “How many space documentaries have you watched?”
“Quite a few,” he says. “Space is amazing.”
“OK, so you know how gravity pulls everything together?”
“Well, everything that has mass, anyway.”
“Precisely,” she says. “But the Universe is flying apart, too, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, because of dark energy.”
“Now think about that,” she says. “Dark energy? Working as anti-gravity? More powerful than one of the fundamental forces?” She tilts her head. “Does that make any sense?”
“Maybe,” he says, drawing out the syllables, “If the differences between things are driving them apart faster than their commonalities can pull them together.” He stares off into the distance. The epiphany swells ever larger, taking up the whole width of Hell Street above their heads. “And if commonalities pull things together, then maybe closeness in space is the commonality that makes gravity work?”
“Maybe,” she says. “I mean, I don’t know. I’m not a physicist. But they talk about dimples in spacetime being gravity fields that pull things together. I’m really not sure what else to make of that. What do you think?”
“I think,” he says, and trails off. “I think I feel a little high right now.”
“Ha ha, don’t worry, that’s normal. Here, come on inside.” She lets go with one hand, and they walk side-by-side back into the saloon.
As Uma walks through the saloon doors, they don’t so much swing as blur. Eli feels a slight resistance as he passes through the pair of blurs, not as if he is moving them, but as if he is passing through a thickness of the air. Almost like walking through waist-deep water. He looks back at the doors, but Uma keeps pulling at his hand, and he looks at the table where –
Carter and Willy are utterly transformed. Carter is radiant, seeming to glow with an unearthly light; beastly, with shocks of coarse fur all over him, a calm and appraising countenance upon his face. Willy, by stark contrast, seems to be in shadow; he, too, is beastly and covered in fur, golden but dulled by his shadowy aura, grinning with deadly intent. Uma walks up to Carter and whispers in his ear,
“All right, we’re back. Game on.”
“They’re back,” Carter says with a resounding echo. “Game on.” I’m in trouble, Elias seems to hear beneath his words.
“Your move,” Willy says. You’re dead echoes from beneath his voice.
Elias looks at the chessboard. The pieces all seem to have a faint blur along their lines of movement. The knights appear to occupy all the squares at once, their shadows strongest at one move out and fading from there. It’s hard for him to look at, and he blinks a few times.
“So you see the board,” Uma asks.
“Yeah,” Elias replies. “It’s hard to see, but it’s – it’s like a second sight. I mean, I know how Chess is played, but it’s like I can see all the moves on the board at once.”
“Crazy, huh?” He nods back in answer.
Carter moves a pawn up to block the threatening bishop. Willy moves his queen into a more threatening position. Carter moves his king out of the bishop’s path, but his aura seems to tremble and fade a little. Willy moves a knight.
“Checkmate,” I win.
“Good game,” Little bitch.
Carter tips his king over, and its spirit shadow seems to fade. It’s still there, just… Dead, Elias thinks.
“You ready to go back,” Uma asks.
“All right. Close your eyes.” He does so, and the vibrance fades from the world, leaving the dullness of the mundane in its wake. He takes a deep breath, opens his eyes.
“Welcome back,” Carter says. “You have a nice trip?”
“Trip is right,” Elias replies.
“So it’s like this,” Carter says, turning in his chair to look at him. “We want you in our little club.”
“And if I say no?”
“Well, you can.” Carter tips his palms upward, shrugs as he tilts his head. “But we know you don’t want to.”
Elias thinks for a moment. He’s eager for more, yet resentful that they’ve got him pegged so well. He feels pigeonholed, boxed-in, as though he’s – in checkmate. Like there’s only one thing to do. Tip over his king, and say,
Carter nods with a big smile. “I knew you’d come around, buddy.”
“Hey,” Elias says. When Uma and I were Inside, you guys looked different. Beastly.” Willy casts a sidelong glance. Carter nods slowly and says,
“We all got a beast inside. Go ask Tajo about that, he’ll set you straight.”
Elias walks back to the storeroom where Tajo watches over Rufio.
“Hey, Carter told me to come back here again. He told me to ask you about the beast within, or something.” Tajo nods, and says,
“Sit.” Elias sits cross-legged on the floor. Tajo strokes his beard, purses his lips. “Your body is many, even while it is one. It is you, whole and complete, but it is also your hands, your feet, your fingers and toes. All the parts are separate, and yet together.
“So, too, is your spirit: many-in-one. Urges, like beasts, battle to dominate your will. Like beasts, they know no reason but their own pure and savage nature, and they seek victory with no regard to what is right, or what is best.
“Some of them, like the urge to breed, are solitary creatures. They will turn on you if you do not tend to them, but they are simple enough to manage.
“But others travel together in packs, like rage, and vengeance, and greed. These will lash out at whatever whets their appetite, harrying their prey until it collapses, only to hunger for more. Or kindness, forgiveness, and generosity, which will help you if they are healthy and strong, but will wear you out upon the world if you allow them to grow fat and lazy.
“These beasts, these urges, are as much a part of you as your hands and feet. Cut them off, and you injure yourself. What you must learn to do is bring them into balance, and then the rest will come with practice. Like learning to run over great distances: you must have both legs, strong and swift; your belly must not be too large, but neither must you be starving; your heart must beat fast enough, but not too fast; and so with the breathing of your lungs. And even then, it takes long hours of practice before you will be able to run a marathon.” Elias nods as he thinks on this for some time.
“And how do I bring these beasts into balance,” he asks at last.
“You must feed them, each in their own way. You must find what the beast is hungry for, and give him a little of what he wants.”
“So be kind, and I feed my kindness.”
“Yes,” Tajo says with a nod.
“And be angry to feed my anger.”
“Yes,” he says, nodding again. “But it is one thing to be simply angry. It is another thing entirely to be correctly angry.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Elias says.
“You must know the cause of your anger. You must acknowledge it, give it its due. But do not feed the beast only because it is hungry: that will never end, for as you feed it, its hunger grows. You must only feed it enough to stop it from turning against you.”
“And what about kindness?”
“Kindness is different, but no easier. You must know when to feed it, but it is hard to know when it will become greedy in its own way, and consume you. So, too, with forgiveness: while it is noble to forgive others their wrongdoings, it will cause you great harm in this dangerous world to ignore all the damage that others may do to you.”
“I see what you mean,” Elias says with a nod. “Sort of like too much of a good thing?”
“Yes,” Tajo agrees, “You are starting to see.” He looks out at the setting Sun. “It grows late, and you have learned much today.”
“You could say that again,” Elias says.
“Carter will want to arrange another meeting. Speak with him. Then sleep, and think on what you have seen.”Elias nods, and stands to leave.