January 3, 2012
A fresh hell consisting of fireworks-like sparkles of anxiety had Bad Burton pacing angrily in his room.
Kenneth, that old bastard, stomped into the B&B while he enjoyed breakfast with two fawning beauties and announced that he was going to journey into Yellowstone in search of someone named “Serena.”
Just like that. One second light chuckles and porridge and the next, “All right then, I’m off to find Serena.” Typical of old men, burned Burton. Typical. The urge to charge him and stab him in his judgmental eye coursed through his veins like a fresh shot of heroin.
“Where now?” Carrie asked Kenneth.
“She will be in one of two places,” he said stepping from his parka and hanging it on a rack.
“I’d rather not go alone. Anyone up for an adventure?” Kenneth was looking directly at Burton, who awkwardly spooned a glob of cold porridge into his sinister pie hole. He glared back at the old man but said nothing.
“You have to go by snowmobile, won’t you?” Stacy said, her voice piled heavy with the tone that adults use on younger teenagers who need prodding to do something they’ll enjoy.
“Aye, there’s far too much snow up there now for anything else.”
“Well, you can count me out,” Carrie smiled. “I’ll happily stay here and hold down the fort.” She looked at Stacy.
Taking her cue, Stacy suggested to Burton that he go for a ride.
“I don’t wanna,” the lad pouted. “It’s cold out.”
Kenneth’s opinion of the boy, already lower than what he thought of me, hit the floor.
“The lad’s right. It will be bloody cold up there. You all stay here.”
Stacy couldn’t help it. “Come on Burton, I’ll go if you go. We can round up another snowmobile, right?”
Kenneth said he already had three ready to roll.
“They’re all over this place. And I’ve got lots of fuel, too.”
Stacy said she’d pack food.
“How long will we be gone for?” She asked.
Kenneth shrugged. “Dunno, really. Maybe up to a week.”
Stacy froze. Carrie did, too.
Burton huffed a heavy teenaged sigh. Then his evil caught up with his punk angst. He could slash the old bastard’s throat while he’s riding behind him — up in the wildnerness where no one would find his corpse.
Now he had to talk Stacy into staying.
“A week is a long time to be out in the cold, Stacy,” he said gently. “I’ll go with Kenneth. You stay here and stay warm and comfortable. And we can’t leave Carrie here alone.”
Kenneth raised a thick eyebrow and pondered the boy.
Stacy asked Kenneth to explain the possible length of time away.
“It’s a big bloody place,” he arfed. “And Serena might not be there. Like me she’ll have apprentices to round up. No matter where she is — I need to have a look around.”
He unfolded a map of the park and spread it across the kitchen table.
If Serena is there, she’ll either be at Grant Village by West Thumb,” he said, jabbing a gnarled finger against the map, “or possibly at the old hotel at Old Faithful, for comfort’s sake. But she might also be out in the field — and that’ll take some looking if she is. I’ve been to ground zero before, but that was in the summer. It is somewhere in the centre of the park — at a bloody great elevation… something like 8,800 feet above sea level.”
Carrie asked what ground zero was.
“It is where Serena will need to be, as I must be back in Long Valley.”
“Why are we here again, then?” Carrie asked.
“Serena needs my assistance,” Kenneth said matter-of-factly.
“Oh,” Carrie said, as if remembering he’d told her that before — but he hadn’t.
“Why does she need your help?” Stacy cut in.
“It’s a very long bloody story,” he said, exasperated. “I can’t really explain to you why — I just have to, and that’s that. Time being important and all, y’know.”
Carrie nodded and said she didn’t need to know any more than Kenneth was willing to impart.
“I’m just the abductee, right? So anyway, how do you know I won’t bail out of here as soon as you zip up that road into the park?”
Kenneth said he was certain she wouldn’t, because she knew he was right.
“I don’t know shit from shinola, fella,” Carrie said. “I ache… I mourn everyday. My children… my life… my world… get where I am going with this? This shit that’s going on – that is your concern. My concern is to stay alive, to remember and to be happy. You tell me X, Y and Z and I am supposed to believe you. And I do, damn it, because the universe is always right and all that. So you have to go into the wilderness to find some woman at ground zero to … what? Make sure she can start her spaceship? Change her oil? Get laid? It better not be that old man!”
Kenneth ignored Carrie. Another rant. He’d heard more than he wished to admit. It was that bloody Bob’s influence on her, for certain.
“Stacy — the boy and I shall go up into the park — to Grant Village and Old Faithful. Pack us enough food for four days,” Kenneth ordered. “It’s about 45 miles from here to Grants Village, so if the conditions are good we’ll be there in a bit over an hour. If they’re bad — we’ll have to hunker down. It can get bad really quickly and weather can settle into that big bastard caldera for long periods in the winter, just like Long Valley.”
Burton pictured himself killing Kenneth as he blustered at the women and a sexual charge rattled through his nervous system, igniting growth down below.
Thirty minutes later, Burton was once again dismayed. Clomping out into the bright sunny day, bundled up and toting a knapsack with extra clothing and food, Kenneth motioned to a sleek Arctic Cat.
“There’s your ride, lad. Ye watch your throttle, that girl will rip,” he chuckled. “Best hang on tight.”
Kenneth stradled his machine and Stacy secured a large pack on the backseat. She patted the old man on the back and wished him well.
“Slow, easy and carefully!” Carrie shouted from the door of the B&B.
Burton waved at her and smiled. She thought briefly that he reminded her a bit of her youngest son.
The snow machines rattled and growled and they rumbled away over the prodigious powder.
Before leaving the B&B Kenneth rifled through Burton’s bag and found a large kitchen knife wrapped in a dishtowel. He knew he was right about the boy. He wasn’t left to do good. He oozed evil – pure, simple evil. Kenneth didn’t intend to bring the boy back.
Burton stared at the old man’s back, hunched over the snowmobile, and visualized sliding the kitchen knife he’d stowed away into it. Or the razor he kept in his jeans pocket — slicing through his esophagus. He remembered the popping and gurgling sound it made when he killed that nosey cop. The lad crackled his throttle and darted past the old man. A pulsing hard on raged in his loins. Stacy and Carrie were going to be his forever. As he undulated along over the thick snow covering Highway 20, he imagined what it would be like sticking his thing in the women. He never felt so free and his withered heart trilled death songs for lousy old men.
The snow machines rattled up to the Yellowstone park gates. One was caved in from a national parks pickup that must have been going a good clip at 11:11 a.m. Nov. 11. As usual, Burton appreciated the sight of the carnage.
He raced forward, creating a gap between himself and Kenneth, who appeared to be looking for something as he putted past the gates. He was looking for a Nissan pickup truck and was relieved to see the one in the ticket kiosk wasn’t Serena’s.
Because the park was closed Nov. 11, the roadway was clear of vehicles and with a bright sun beaming down on a doomed world, the unlikely traveling partners were able to get their snow machines up to fun and dangerous speeds.
Kenneth admired the glistening splendour that was Firehole River as he rolled along, keeping the occasional eye out for Burton. Tucked in his belt was a .38 and in his backpack was a shiney Glock that Carrie had given him that morning.
“Just in case,” she said with a wink. The gesture boggled Kenneth. Two millenia of life and learning, along with an ability to capture a person’s essence just by hearing them speak or watching them interact meant he was rarely caught off guard or surprised. It merely confirmed the fact that Carrie was to become a first-rate angel – possibly a leader such as himself or Serena. He briefly searched for memories of his first few decades, when he, too, was oblivious of his paramount role in the continuation of terrestrial souls. Like soap bubbles, they appeared and then popped, leaving him questioning.
The boy didn’t care that he was seeing a global treasure on a glorious winter’s day — at a time when most people could not behold it, save a few park wardens. Growing up not far from the park, he always thought people made too much fuss about it. Besides, he was too busy deciding when he would kill the old man. Right away, he figured. First chance I get. Old prick.
It only took half an hour to get to Old Faithful. The grand old hotel was an snow-covered oasis in a volatile wilderness. Kenneth led them across a parking lot and onto the viewing walkway around Old Faithful, which appeared to be still popping off on regular intervals, and they came to a stop at a side door to the hotel. Kenneth rose from his machine and stretched, groaning.
Burton fingered the razor that he’d shifted to his parka pocket and hammered down the urge to attack the old man. “Is that a snowmobile track over there?” he asked.
Kenneth turned and looked to where Burton was pointing.
He quickly swung a leg over his snow machine and took a couple of jerky steps toward what was definitely a snowmobile track.
The glare from the snow blinded him from the seeing the track originally.
“Nice work, lad,” he said. “That’s what we are looking for.”
Burton’s heart sunk. He didn’t want the old prick’s approval. Fuck you, he simmered within, his thumb running and up down the blunt edge of the razor.
“Let’s get a move on,” Kenneth ordered. “That’s a fairly fresh track.”
Burton was starting to feel an old rage, like a phone call from an old friend, and his hands clenched the snowmobile handlebars so tightly that his knuckles hurt.
“Can’t I stay here? I want to explore this place. And what about the fountain thing?” he said, folding the evil demon back into his teenaged body.
Kenneth relished the thought of leaving the lad behind.
“Okay. Keep a low profile, because that track may not mean good things,” Kenneth said, and he throttled away, back out to the parking lot and out of sight past the new section of hotel that was finished the year before the disappearance. Throttling his machine he wondered why he warned the boy. Let him fall prey, he shrugged.
Burton stepped from his machine and grabbed his pack. He swung the door open to the hotel and soaked in the soaring rustic delights of the old holiday haven. The spicy aroma of hundreds of thousands of fires sat dead centre in the still air of the old hotel and Burton stared at an expansive central fireplace. He giggled as he thought about Kenneth turning on a spit inside it.
He had no intention of exploring. His eyes couldn’t leave the fireplace and with his excited breaths gushing out with swirling clouds, he quickly built a roaring fire. As the fire crackled, Burton wandered around the hotel and shrieked with delight when he came upon a large lounge with a nicely stocked bar. He had enjoyed drinking alcohol when he was in Big Sky.
The boy grabbed several bottles of rum, vodka and rye and returned to the fireplace in the lobby. He took sips of booze and spat them into the fire and cackled gleefully when arching tendrils of flame licked toward him, like the solar flares that were soon going to help propel the demise of evil and ferry away the rest of the world’s souls.
Kenneth followed the snowmobile track through a forest and eventually back onto the highway that zig-zagged up and over to West Thumb. The track led into the West Thumb parking lot and Kenneth paused to enjoy the bubbling volcanic wonders. Steam flowered into a sharp blue sky and Yellowstone Lake spread out before him defying the rigors of an unusually cold and snowy winter.
A few miles down the road Kenneth rolled into Grant Village and followed the track to a brightly painted employees’ housing complex. A snowmobile was parked beside it.
He rolled up to the building and shut his machine off. A voice barked out at him to put his hands up.
Kenneth did as was requested.
The voice asked him who he was.
“My name is Kenneth,” he said crisply. “I am looking for Serena.”
The deep voice demanded, “Serena who?”
Kenneth laughed. “That’s a question you may wish to retract. I might be a while reciting the trail of names she has left behind her over the millennia.”
A door opened and a bearded black man of about 40 emerged, pointing a shotgun at Kenneth’s chest. He wore a park warden’s jacket.
“You must be Jason Ridley,” Kenneth said, lowering his arms. “My shoulders are killing me from all that hethon riding.”
Jason Ridley stepped into the sunshine and lowered his gun.
“Kenneth! Wow. Welcome,” he blurted and thrust a hand out.
Kenneth clasped his hand with his own surprisingly powerful claw and squeezed.
“Damned fine to see ye are well, Jason,” he said.
“When I heard the machine coming, I wasn’t so sure I was,” Ridley replied. “I was also hoping to see Serena and Madeline pull up.”
“That answers my next question,” Kenneth said. “When did you see the old girl last?”
“It’s been many months… maybe six or more,” Ridley replied. “Last time I saw her was at ground zero, as she called it … back in late June,” he said, sitting heavily on Kenneth’s snow machine. “Man, she said something then that has had me freaking out. We were sitting by a fire and she reached down and patted the ground and said, ‘won’t be long now.’”
Kenneth gazed across Yellowstone Lake and turned back to Ridley. “She always was the sensitive one. Always has been, I should say.”
“Do you think she is okay?” Ridley asked.
“She’s a right cat, that one. Lands on her feet and has more lives than an immortal can imagine.”
Kenneth noticed Ridley appeared gaunt and his beard growth wasn’t a matter of choice.
“How long have you been up here lad?”
Ridley’s answer made Kenneth whistle. “You are a marvel for your sanity, son,” he said. “Most men would have stirred themselves into whipped cheese if they’d been up here that long.”
Jason Ridley had been a national park warden for the past 18 years. It had been his lifelong ambition to become a Yellowstone warden, after visiting the park with his parents when he was 10.
He marveled at the creation answers contained within its boundaries, and felt blessed to encounter its denizens. When his mother stated, “It’s like looking backward in time,” while they goggled at Mammoth Hot Springs, the budding geography major was hooked.
Ridley concluded his normal lower middle class childhood in St. Louis, attended the University of Iowa and obtained a masters in physical geography and minor in criminology. One year after he graduated he landed a job with the national parks service and was posted in Grand Teton. He cut his teeth in Jackson, rousting drunken skiers and campers for three years and lunged at a chance for a transfer to Yellowstone.
Ridley kept a home near Jackson Lake and was heading to Jackson to have coffee with his girlfriend, Brenda, on Nov. 11.
He was passing Moran Junction at 11:11 a.m. when a pickup truck coming toward him veered into his lane. Snow was blowing across the highway and there were occasional patches of black ice, so he assumed the truck had lost control. The truck hit the shoulder and whipped violently down into the sagebrush flats beside the road where it bounced hard and then flipped over. Its tires were still spinning when Ridley arrived to check on the driver — who was currently floating in an indescribably pleasant vacuum.
His mind was still battling with the creepy idea that a full-sized Chevy four-by-four had been barreling down the highway on its own as he pulled away and resumed his journey to Jackson.
As he neared Moose he spotted another truck on its side, about 100 yards off the highway. Its lights were still on. Ridley stopped and checked it. It was empty.
A numbness was settling over his comprehensive faculties as he pulled away from that scene and it was just subsiding as he neared Jackson. There’s some kind of answer, he told himself as he passed the spot where the city limits sign used to be — now flattened by a car.
Ridley’s jaw dropped and he stopped his truck. The road leading into Jackson looked like a scene from a graphic novel he once read. Smoke billowed from a pile up of four trucks and cars; a semi-trailer was jammed into the side of the visitor information centre. A large column of black smoke rose from the downtown area, to the south.
Ridley fumbled for his cell phone and dialed Brenda’s number. He got her answering service.
“Brenda! This is Jason. Please call me back as soon as you see this message. Something really wrong is happening in Jackson.”
That was the message he listened to when he found Brenda’s phone on a table in the Jackson Hole Roasters coffee shop in downtown Jackson, 20 minutes later.
Ridley, like the other 75 million people remaining around the world at that moment, was in serious crisis. Always a calm, sensible man who trusted logic and reason over emotion, Ridley felt as though his sanity belt was about to slip.
His emotions rampaged back and forth from terror to extreme anger as he observed the settling impacts of human life coming to a halt.
He spent the next few days moving back and forth from his cabin and Jackson, checking — wondering if he might reverse whatever it was he did to alter the universe. But it was still just Jackson and he was alone.
Then it hit him. The old woman. She’ll be there. I know she will be. She’ll be at “ground zero” as she called it last summer. This is what she was talking about!
Bolstered with hope, Jackson raced into Yellowstone and began searching for Serena.
After his first fruitless search, he returned home and gathered supplies and returned to Grant Village, to the room where he stays when he is working.
“Heavy snows came then and I’ve been here since,” Ridley told Kenneth. “It’s been easier to be isolated and alone than be surrounded by reminders of what was – you know, the mess of it all coming to an end.”
He had not had contact with another human since Nov. 11 and he’d been alone in the heart of Yellowstone for seven weeks.
His supplies ran out after the first week and he had been surviving off the little food that he scrounged up in the village, and at Old Faithful. He had to fix the snowmobile that was in the ranger station at Old Faithful, but first he had to walk the 19 miles to the station — no easy feat in two feet of snow, and growing.
With limited gas, he had to return to Grant Village with meager provisions. He knew he could get enough gas at Grant Village to get him home to his cabin, where he had plenty of provisions, and more gas.
Ridley was just preparing to head out when Kenneth arrived.
“As Carrie would say — it’s your lucky day,” Kenneth said, adding Ridley would find out who Carrie was.
Overcome with the realization he wasn’t alone, Ridley’s eyes filled and his sniffled.
Kenneth put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
“It’s better than that, son,” he said. “You are not the only person left alive — you are in fact someone very important for the future. Did Serena tell you?”
Ridley wiped at his nose and shook his head. “Tell me what? She said something about something won’t be long — and sure as shit something happened.”
Kenneth looked deeply into his eyes and Ridley suddenly felt extremely nervous.
“Jason, lad, you need to know a few things.”
Kenneth laid out the gospel according to him and concluded by informing Ridley that he was an apprentice angel, of a sort. And he was drawn to Yellowstone for “a perfectly good reason. It was so you could fulfill your destiny.”
Kenneth was impressed with how Ridley took the news. He didn’t rail like a bothered wasp stuck between windowpanes, as Carrie had done, or ask a million questions like Stacy. He nodded and stroked his beard thoughtfully and emitted the occasional “hmm.” Kenneth liked a man who could take large news.
“Right then, I’ve got to get back to Old Faithful to deal with the lad,” Kenneth said and mumbled something Ridley missed.
Kenneth told him about the poor decision to pick Burton up and how, against his advice, the two women forced him to let an evil soul aboard their situation.
Ridley thought the old man was a bit heavy and couldn’t imagine the evil he was speaking about. While we had all witnessed savage acts the last seven weeks, Ridley had been spared that truly foul barb of reality. I guess folks in and around the Jackson, Wyoming area were good souls, because it was denuded of life during the disappearance.
All Ridley had faced up to now was a strangely aggressive cougar, which he had to drop, much against his training and wishes.
Kenneth penned a lengthy note, wrapped it in a plastic bag and pinned it to the door of Ridley’s cabin.
“I would expect Serena will come up into the park from the Jackson end, as she lives your way. We’re in West Yellowstone, at a lovely little bed and breakfast,” Kenneth said. “A lot more comfortable and much better stocked than this wee place. C’mon lad, bet you could use a nice square meal.”
Ridley grinned. “Damn straight and then some.”
The two men rattled away from Grant Village and weaved back toward Old Faithful. The two tracks leading from Old Faithful were now hard and their machines packed down an even greater volume of snow, forming an excellent travel surface and distinct sign of human activity.
They were about five miles away, drifting down a long hill, when they spotted the smoke.
The column of dark smoke doubled in size by the time they reached Old Faithful. The old lodge was fully engulfed. Flames demanded greater access to the sky with each second and they climbed into the deep blue afternoon sky.
“That wee bastard burns everything down,” Kenneth shouted.
Ridley was aghast. “Who would do this?”
Kenneth told him he knew Burton “was a ratheaded bastard. I knew we should have left him to rot in Montana. Bloody hell. Bloody women and their bloody maternal bloody instincts!”
To the west, Old Faithful sputtered and ejaculated skyward – a natural exclamation point for Kenneth’s anxiety.
Ridley’s eyes widened when Kenneth pulled the .38 from his coat.
“Better get that shotgun out, lad.”
Ridley fumbled out his griz-equaling 10-guage and followed Kenneth, who skirted the redhot blaze to the newer section of the hotel, which was thus far free of flames.
There was no sign of Burton’s snow machine and the spiking flames had melted or warped most of the tracks near the hotel.
Kenneth shouted his name, like a father searching for a son who had done something prickly and cheeky, then disappeared through a door into the new section of hotel.
Ridley gawped at the inferno.
He puffed his cheeks out with a gruff sigh and shouted at Kenneth to “wait up” and trotted through the door.
As he stepped into the dim inside, his eyes slowly focused on what was making the slashing sound. It was Burton slashing at Kenneth with an animated, feral fury and the old man was now screaming blue murder.
Ridley raised his shotgun and screamed.
A nerve jangling pop rang out and Burton spun wildly to the left and slammed into a wall. He bounced back toward Ridley, who instinctively thrust the barrel of his shotgun at Burton’s mid-section. He slammed into the barrel and the razor slashed into the arm of Ridley’s parka. The impact squeezed his trigger and the gun unleashed its purpose through Burton’s skinny chest. The shock of the blast loosed his bowels and his last conscious thought was “fuck, I shit myself.”
Kenneth slumped to the floor, grasping at his left arm, which had been slashed repeatedly by the maniacal child.
A large blot of thick, dark red gushed from Burton’s lifeless body and flowed toward Kenneth. Ridley lunged to the old man’s side and began putting his extensive first aid skills to work, efficiently exposing and cleaning the wounds and chattering “nonsensically,” Kenneth thought, to keep his patient awake and helping by applying pressure to the deeper gashes. Ridley wasn’t aware that Kenneth was immortal.
“I’m really getting too old for this,” Kenneth grunted as Ridley efficiously wrapped his forearm with his undershirt. Ridley thought there would be more blood, considering the ragged shredding Kenneth’s parka received.
At that moment, in London, England, the former chief executive officer for British Petroleum was being gang raped by three methamphetamine-crazed deviants. One was once an avid member of Greenpeace who killed a drunken whaling boat owner one rainy night in Kyoto and he recognized the skulking cretin whose anus he was now violating. The trio whooped and hollered with glee.
“Have you got it under control?” One kept asking him as the final moments of his existential angst collapsed into a dark vacuum.
All around the globe, evil attacked evil.
Ian Cobb/e-KNOWTags: 11:11Ian Cobb
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