Ethan (October 27, 2015)
“You might think you’ve peeped the scene
You haven’t, the real one’s far too mean
The watered down one, the one you know
Was made up centuries ago
They made it sound all whack and corny
Yes, it’s awful blasted boring
Twisted fiction, sick addiction
Well gather ‘round children – zip it, listen”
Can’t be much further, he reassured himself, just keep driving.
Having recited this mantra to himself countless times across five-hundred miles of frozen wasteland, any meaning these words once held had long diminished. Fourteen straight hours confined to his truck had left him hungry, sore and impatient. He knew he should turn back. Yet the farther he ventured into the heart of Alaska, the more compelled he felt to push forward.
When he glimpsed a snow-capped forest in the distance, however, Ethan could sense his journey was finally nearing its end.
Can’t be much further, he repeated as he surveyed the valley below with red eyes. Only this time, he believed it.
It was still hours before sunrise when Ethan received a call from a blocked number.
His name was Clarence Norton, and he had found Ethan through a listing in the yellow pages. Clarence was in need of Ethan’s services for an urgent delivery that he claimed was ‘of vital importance’. He spoke fast and automated, like he were reading the lines off of a script. Meanwhile, Ethan was still hazy from sleep, and could hardly stifle his yawns, ket alone keep up with the man’s constant jawing. He heard something about a package waiting at the airport, and a remote destination, but Ethan was mostly waiting for an opening to decline the job and go back to bed.
Then Clarence mentioned the ten-thousand dollar reward for his services.
Ethan was out the door within minutes, leaving his sleeping daughter with a kiss goodbye and telling his wife he’d be home later. The air was cold, and he had to combat the harsh winds just to get to his truck. He brought a thermos of coffee and kept a couple granola bars in his coat pocket for the road. When the truck had warmed, Ethan sparked a cigarette and made for the airport.
He arrived at the terminal at precisely 6:00 AM, where staff escorted him to a plane on the runway. Two stout men in down jackets waited for him with a large, black duffle bag and several red fuel containers. Ethan greeted the men with a smile as they lugged the items towards the cargo bed, but was met with a surly ‘step back’ as they wedged themselves between him and his truck. The first man loaded the bed with the fuel containers, then helped his partner heave the much heavier bag into the back. Once the truck was loaded, they warned Ethan to leave the package as it were. ‘Safety reasons’, they had said, and then sealed the bag’s zippers together with plastic straps.
“What are the gas cans for?” Ethan shouted against the wind. He counted four of them.
“You,” the one man answered.
“How long is this drive?”
The man then handed off a map of Barrow and a small envelope, and disappeared without another word. His partner was already gone. Ethan followed suit, retreating inside his truck to escape the cold.
He opened the envelope first. It contained a stack of money, the likes of which he had never held before. Two thousand dollars, just as Clarence had promised. A deposit to ensure the package arrived in a timely manner. Ethan placed the envelope deep in his pant pocket, where it would be kept safe.
As he unfolded the map of his hometown against the steering wheel, Ethan had to laugh. Clarence, he resolved, was from the Lower 48. Nobody living this far north needed maps to get around, and especially not delivery drivers. All Ethan needed was a name, and he’d know exactly where to go. In any case, he had a GPS installed on his dash if he ever needed it.
Yet as he spread the page out over the steering wheel, Ethan understood why Clarence had refused to provide an address over the phone. As he studied the marker that traced the route to his final destination, Ethan scratched his head.
A thick red line originating at the airport directed him east towards the ocean, before heading south on Apayuak. From there, it followed this same road to the outskirts of town. Shortly before it reached a dead end, the marker strayed suddenly from the map, and formed an uncharted route that led due south. It continued until the very edge of the page, ending with an arrowhead and follow until very end scribbled in the bottom margin.
Ethan was stumped. He glanced out his windows in search of help, but with the men long gone, and no phone numbers he could call, he had no other options. For several minutes he remained parked on the empty runway, trying to recall this unmapped route, though he was certain nothing existed beyond the town limits. Even his GPS did not recognize this passage. Yet with no other information to go on, Ethan closed the map and headed south to see what he he could find.
Much to his surprise, he happened upon the road quite easily. The path had been carved out through the snow, leading past the abandoned mill, across the plains and towards the horizon. Even still, Ethan felt an apprehension about taking this route, even with it laid out so cleanly before him. The path was makeshift and it seemingly led to nowhere. Then he remembered the envelope in his pocket, and understood why Clarence felt the need to provide a deposit. Ethan decided he was just being a chicken. What was the worst that could happen?
The days were shorter this time of year, and darkness still loomed long into the morning. When the Sun finally dawned just before noon, Ethan was already weary of driving.
Couldn’t be much farther, he reasoned. Give it one more half hour.
But Ethan found nothing in those thirty minutes, nor the thirty minutes after that. All he had uncovered was more arctic tundra. A white, barren dessert that seemingly led him farther into a monotonous abyss of nothingness. The trail turned into a proper gravel road only several miles into the drive, but he had yet to cross a single outpost or checkpoint to mitigate his uncertainty about the journey ahead. His phone soon lost reception, while the GPS only served to show how far downstate he had come. Looking at the screen, his truck had become nothing more than a tiny blue dot gradually moving into further isolation.
Had he known the drive were this far, Ethan would have never accepted the job. Even now, the money seemed less alluring than it once had. He’d gladly trade what he had in his pocket for a refill of coffee and a half-decent meal. His stomach was grumbling, but the only times he could stop were for refuels and piss breaks. He had listened through all his CDs, and was now on their second spin. His enthusiasm waned, and in its place spawned unrest. The longer he drove, however, the harder he found it to turn back. He had become bound to the road, and salvation would only be found once he reached his destination. He needed to know that it was leading him somewhere.
The snow started before nightfall, and continued long into the evening. Flurries evolved into a blizzard, and soon Ethan’s windshield was being barraged with a blanket of white dust that forced him to slow. The winds were unyielding. He thought to drop the plough in case the road became worse, but was in a hurry, and saw the shovel as a hindrance rather than a safety precaution.
The weather had started to clear around midnight, revealing a small collection of buildings in the distance. Ethan’s morale spiked, as did the needle on the speedometer. He had finally made it, or so he thought.
The road continued right through to the manmade structures, but as he drew closer, it became more apparent that the settlement was deserted. Ethan slowed to a roll as he passed. There were three log shelters, each one buried beneath snow, and devoid of any life. There were no vehicles or tracks in the snow, and beeping his horn failed to stir any sort of response.
Ethan referenced the map again. Follow until very end was all that had been written. Since the road continued onward, he did as well. He grabbed another Marlboro to pacify his disappointment, the second-to-last one in his final pack. He was already hungry and restless, and now he only had one cigarette left to calm his nerves.
The next ridge he encountered came unexpectedly. It dropped off gradually into a luscious forest unlike any he had ever seen before.
Couldn’t be much farther, he thought as he surveyed the valley below with red eyes.
The tundra continued down the slope of the hillside before ending at the forest’s edge. Eighteen hours of a once infinite terrain vanquishing all at once. The thick growth of pines formed a wall at the bottom, and spanned into the distance as far as he could see. Ethan idled at the top of the gorge. According to the blue dot on his GPS, he was nearer to the Pacific, and had travelled a quarter-length of the state. Still, he was heavily entrenched in the arctic circle, and many miles away from fertile land. Trees couldn’t survive under these harsh conditions, so how could the forest before him be thriving with so much life?
From atop the slope, Ethan could already smell the fresh pine. The scent permeated his nostrils, invigorating his senses and filling him with new life. His body felt lighter and less achy, while his fatigue and weariness had seemingly faded. Even his hunger had subsided. The trees pulsed with energy, a magnetic force pulling him closer. The longer he stalled, the stronger the attraction. Though he couldn’t say why, he could sense he was getting close. Somewhere in this forest his destination awaited.
The next two hours of driving were no more remarkable than the others, but Ethan found the woods to be a refreshing change of scenery. Trees lined the path from either side, and most of them were so tall and thick that he couldn’t see twenty yards into the brush. Their long, spiky branches even crept on to the road, clawing at his windows as he passed. The deeper he drove into the forest, the harder it was to manoeuvre, and yet it made him all the more determined to find where it led.
It wasn’t until the gas pump lit up on his dash that Ethan was forced to stop. Gingerly he limped to the back of the truck on stiff legs, where he retrieved a gas can from the cargo bed. As he started filling the tank, Ethan paused to observe his surroundings. The snow was still heavy, though the pine branches caught most of the downfall before it could settle on the path. The air remained crisp, but the forest blocked out the fierce tundra winds and created a rare stillness uncommon to the north. He gazed upon the trees in awe, then closed his tired eyes and took a moment to immerse himself within the tranquility of nature. It was then he heard a nasal sigh nearby.
Had it not been for its greyish tail swaying softly amongst the green branches, Ethan wouldn’t have seen the creature at all. Partially camouflaged and hidden between the trees, he could only just piece together the resemblance of a stallion. The beast was larger than any he’d seen before, with hair as white as the snow. It stood tall and stoic, staring off into the distance.
It can’t be, he thought.
Ethan edged closer, empty canteen still in hand. The animal’s head turned slightly when it heard him approach, but remained impassive to his presence. Its face was mostly covered by branches, though a single brown eye peered at him through the pine needles, before turning back to the forest.
He continued advancing closer, but froze suddenly when he heard a strange howl. The forest went quiet again. Then the ground began to shake. At first it was soft and hardly noticeable, but as the rumbling intensified, Ethan started to worry. The horse, however, remained calm and unbothered by the commotion. Soon he could hear a frenzy of footsteps stampeding towards him, until finally he glimpsed a wolf sprinting along the path in his direction.
Ethan dropped the canteen, and sprinted for his truck. Even as he erached the driver’s seat, he could see the rest of the pack peeling around the bend. He hopped inside the truck and shut the door with a slam, watching them through his windshield as they veered around either of his vehicle.
The engine had already started and Ethan was shifting into drive when he saw the wolves reappear in his rearview mirror. The pack had reconvened around his truck and was now continuing their frantic pace off in the direction he had come. Ethan breathed a sigh of relief, but wasn’t willing to wait around for their return. He searched for the horse as he continued ahead, but it had vanished without leaving so much as a footprint behind.
Shortly after midnight, and eighteen hours into driving, Ethan had the first inkling that he had reached his final destination. For his empty stomach, it couldn’t come soon enough.
A fence, barely discernible through the darkened pines had become visible above the tree line. Watching the wiry mesh of chain-links sparked, he noticed tiny white flashes of light danced off the metal until they fizzled into nothing. Behind the fence was a light. It was mostly obstructed by the pines, but the faintest glimmer had managed to shine through.
As the fence approach the road, it started to tower ominously over him. What purpose did a twenty foot fence have in a place like this, he wondered. It’s large stone pillars were stationed around the perimeter to affix the fencing, while strands of barbed wire coiled along the top. Beyond the fencing, the land had been uprooted, and in their place stood the shadow of a building that he could only think to describe as a remote, military stronghold. An Alaskan Alcatraz.
The walls looked impenetrable, though the harsh and unrelenting elements gave it the weathered look of a garrison under siege. Windows were spare, and the few he could see were narrow and barricaded with metal bars. A single turret from its centre rose high above the fences and watched him as he drove.
The road ended at a gate, from which he had a better view of the fortress within. Even as he neared the entrance, Ethan could hear the grind of rusted metal as a passage opened before him. A sudden urge came over him to turn back, but he quickly repressed that thought and continued inside. He had come too far to not see this delivery to its end.
Even as he entered the property, the gate started screeching closed behind him. He followed the driveway into a roundabout that led to a set of large doors. Parking at this entrance, Ethan exited the truck with the engine still running, and tended to the package. Meanwhile, four men had emerged from the steel doors, and were now marching down the steps toward him. The first three wore navy blue uniforms, but the fourth was dressed in a suit. He looked like a hotshot businessman from the likes of Wall Street. Even before he spoke, Ethan could tell who ran the show.
“Hold on now,” he shouted affably. “Let us take care of the heavy lifting.”
“I can handle it,” he said.
The package was even heavier that he expected, however, and he struggled pulling it from the depths of the bed. The weight of it dragged across the floor like an anchor through the sand. What could it be?
“I must insist,” the man said, placing a hand on Ethan’s shoulder and gently guiding him from the truck.
The man gave him an odd look, an alpha male sizing up its competition. Then his antagonistic expression moulded into a smile, and he started to chuckle.
“Ethan,” he said, extending an arm.“ I’m Clarence. Thank you for your help.”
Ethan shook Clarence’s hand. He knew it should have come as a relief to have finally made it here. So why did he still feel uneasy?
“I imagine you must be tired. There are beds inside if you’d like to stay the night.”
With each daunting mile Ethan had logged on this mysterious journey, curiosity had kept beckoning him forward. Yet as he stood within the confines of this demote and heavily barricaded fortress, Ethan wondered if coming here was a mistake. Maybe some secrets were better left undiscovered.
“I’m okay,” he said, “but thank you.”
Two of the uniformed men had since attended to the package, which now rested in the snow. One of them had cut the strap and was zipping the flaps apart, while the other was reaching inside to examine the contents. Though he couldn’t be certain, Ethan thought he saw a hand pop out of the bag. On the middle finger was a single ring.
“You look like you could use some rest,” Clarence said.
Ethan had been able to suppress his exhaustion until now, but it hit him now like a hard slap to the face. A full day’s drive had caught up with him all at once. He turned to look at his reflection in the side window, and realized he looked like shit. A dead man walking. Maybe the exhaustion was getting to him more than he thought. Maybe he had started to lose his mind.
Had he actually seen a hand in that bag, or were tired eyes playing tricks on a deluded mind? What about the pack of wolves scampering through the forest? Or the arctic horse who left no footprints? He hoped now that he was just dreaming.
“You should really get some rest,” Clarence insisted. “You look beat.”
“I’m fine. I have a blanket and pillow if I need it.”
“How about a snack? Or a coffee for the ride home?”
Ethan’s stomach grumbled.
“Sure.” Then he paused. “What is this place?”
Clarence laughed. “It’s less interesting than it looks. How about I grab your money and scrounge up some food, and I’ll give you the details when I get back. Then we’ll have you on your way.”
Ethan nodded. That was everything he wanted.
“Great. John, would you take Ethan’s truck to the garage and fill it up for him, please?”
Ethan’s ears perked up. Take my truck where?
“There’s enough gas to get back,” he said.
Clarence wrapped an arm around Ethan’s shoulder, this time turning him away the truck.
“This is Alaska, Ethan. Gas doesn’t come cheap here. Let me do this one last nice deed for you. I will be right back”
Clarence then patted him on the back and made his way inside to retrieve Ethan’s money and provisions. As Ethan turned back around, he realized the third uniformed man had taken his truck and was already driving off. It had been swindled out from under him, and though he wanted to yell after the man, Ethan was too tired to fight. Instead, he watched helplessly as his truck disappeared behind the fortress, and as Clarence retreated into the building.
The world went quiet once more, and Ethan found himself alone, drained and carless. His cell phone was left in his truck, as was his last cigarette. All he still had on him was the two thousand dollars he had received at the airport. The only thing of no use to him here.
A clearing in the clouds then opened up overhead, and through it the moon appeared. Its glare was overwhelming, and Ethan had to squint as the giant orb lit up the world below. The light was greeted by a familiar howl, so close that it gave him goosebumps. More howls joined in. Soon they were calling from every direction, as if the pack of wolves had surround the property. Tree branches ruffled beyond the fence as something scurried towards the gate.
The moon was eclipsed by cloud once again, and the world returned to darkness. The howling stopped and forest went still.
Unnerved, Ethan felt the compulsion to run. He started to sprint around the fortress in hopes of finding his truck. He no longer cared about the money or uncovering any mysteries. All he wanted was to get home to his family.
He had just started turning the corner when a heavy bang sounded from somewhere high above. Ethan dropped to his knees.
He clutched at his abdomen, and looked down to see his hands and lap were doused with blood. The pain was immense, but he was so desperate to escape that he began crawling through the snow. Ethan looked up to the watchtower, where a figure was watching him down the barrel of rifle. He then turned back to the road, and kept pulling himself forward, faster now to escape the shooters range. In the distance he saw his truck
Couldn’t be much farther, he thought. It was.