The cabin was abandoned when he found it.
It was a cabin, since it was in the woods. It was abandoned, since Lars could find no sign of residents. Or so the words told him. And the words were all he carried as he emerged from the forest, palms running across thick timbers, fingers grasping saplings as he perched upon the cusp of discovery.
There was a still upon the place, one that Lars alone broke as he forced himself through the woodbine and foxglove, wading through the tall grass and parting that in his path. It was upon the doorstep he found revelation: an action, nay, a custom, ingrained within muscle memory. Through muddled memories, beyond stings of swarming words, underneath even the colossal anchor of his one driving instruction…Lars stopped himself.
He drew himself erect. From animal…to man…to civilized…
Lars knocked upon the door.
The door was strong, but unlocked. Lars had known it would be. Sunlight rolled out before him, illuminating clouds of circling dust motes. Lars paused as his vision adjusted. Something was wrong. Stale air made him clammy. His breath slid from his nose. He was reaching for a light switch when he realized what was missing: windows.
Light confirmed the cabin’s disuse. Lars processed this information, though not in so many words, for had he done so, he’d have been distracted by the snowflake individuality of each syllable, pondered what chain events had soldered this thought to that concept. Instinct, however, needed no words, and it was instinct that informed Lars now. The last resident had been a participant.
A fist-size rock startled Lars as it hit the floor. He’d not realized he’d been holding it.
It was a cabin, since it was in the woods. Had Lars had other words available, he might have described it differently. Fort. Bunker. Base. Some things he did have words for, such as the supplies: provisions, ammunition. Likewise, parts of the cabin: commons, barracks, underground firing range.
Definitely participants. Like Lars, they must have held onto a single clear thought, the only instruction provided: ADVANCEMENT REQUIRES NO SURVIVORS.
These words floated in participants’ minds. No further explanation.
Lars had seen no other participants, but it was only a matter of time. And safety demanded anyone be assumed to be a participant. Why else would this cabin be here?
The night passed, Lars waking frequently, listening for the door to open. No matter that he had barred it before sleep would come. The next evening, having taken stock of the cabin, he noted evidence of his presence: empty food cans, depleted toiletries, drying crockery. Had there been any when he arrived? None that Lars recalled.
On the third day, Lars realized the cabin was a trap. It had been made and baited, waiting for prey, and he had stumbled in like a fool. No more. He clothed himself from the laundry, armed himself with rifle and scope, and bagged a handful of canned goods. He slipped out the door, staying low, feeling conspicuous. The front door was the only exit; a skulk around the perimeter confirmed this.
The sunlight was painfully bright. It was roughly the same time of day that he had discovered the cabin. The lack of windows was not only a severe oversight, but also disorienting. He could have been inside for a week and not known.
Lars lay in the high grass, trusting to his ears. Days had passed.
The first day was the worst, and the longest. He had spied upon the cabin until he’d grown fatigued. Still, he abode. Only when he’d tried to estimate time, first wondered about nightfall, had darkness come. He’d slept just inside the tree line, nesting in the high grass. He’d dreamed of reeds creaking and leaves rustling in the wind.
The next day again showed no sign of activity. Lars was troubled by something missing…until the answer presented itself. A woodpecker in the forest. Insect chirps. Squirrel chatter. The natural sounds of the woodland residents erupted around. Had they been there before? Had he just been oblivious? Or had the forest been testing him? He’d nested in the crook of a tree branch that evening.
The day after, he’d grown restless. There were no animal trails…until he’d looked. Then there they were, branching through the trees and brush, circumventing the homestead: evidence that other life passed before. He blessed these wood spirits when he found the small creek, a short hike west of the cabin. He’d soaked his feet. He’d bathed himself, enjoying the water’s briskness.
Two weeks had passed. Two weeks? Roughly, at least. Lars kept notches on a branch about a week in but, growing unsure of the count, had abandoned it. Night fell when he was tired; the sun was up when he awoke.
He’d begun building shelters for the night, collapsing them each day and moving to a new position. He’d stopped moving locations. Then he stopped breaking down the lean-to. Supplies were problematic. Daily survival required frequently leaving the cabin unguarded. Lars had begun raiding cabin provisions to minimize this. Soon, he was using the cabin facilities half the time just to avoid burying his own waste. Guarding the cabin was proving useless.
Lying there in the grass, Lars reached a decision. Better waiting in a defensible cell than dancing in and out of the hangman’s noose.
That night, Lars again slept in a bed.
Lars was uneasy in the cabin, not just because of the constant reminders of being a participant, but because of the uncomfortable knowledge that frequently sprang from nowhere. He needed no manual to work most hardware; needed no experimentation to correctly mix napalm or a whiskey sour. Knowledge simply appeared.
By contrast, outdoors was simple. Exposed, true, but simple.
The internal overflowed into the external.
The cabin was in a field. Knowing firsthand how concealing the overgrowth was, Lars realized the grass must be cropped. The machete was easily found: second row of the armory, midsize blades. Returning via a shortcut, he passed cages of carefully stored mines…any number of which could be buried on or off the grounds…
The process was slow, each section scanned by a device that beeped upon finding metal, then chopped down, then being maintained as further areas expanded. He began around the cabin’s perimeter, thrusting the device into the reeds, then laying it down to hold the grass away from the structure while he hacked. His caution was rewarded: he discovered a mine behind the building, directly opposite the door. Lars considered the mine. He deemed it security, finding a half-broken ladder mounted above it. An escape route, then, with a nasty surprise for visitors.
It was the only mine he found. It took Lars six months to clear the field.
It took another six months to mine the field.
He used the lines in his palms to map paths through the yard, wooden stakes marking the entry points.
Inside the cabin was a room. Inside the room were a desk, a chair, and a small table. The desk faced the wall, where a dark mirror hung. Dark, that is, until Lars investigated and found a small depression. The screen lit. It reflected a surprised Lars, smooth chin and slack jaw agape…only the angle was off. More a side view, slightly from above. Lars discovered a small device on the wall, about half the width of his palm and half the depth of his fist. Lars removed it with a screwdriver. It was feather-light with a three-pronged claw that held fast to most surfaces.
This discovery explained not just the lens purpose, but the surplus in general supply. General supply was the stockroom containing nonconsumables and items that appeared nonlethal. Lars was not sure what many of these items did. He had thought the boxed lens to be a laser component.
Laser. An acronym. Like radar. A compacted word meant to stand for a longer description…only Lars didn’t know what those words were.
Lars had grown less suspicious of his unsought knowledge—but more perturbed. Frequently, answers only begat more questions. He could intuit meanings of words, but not the meaning of the meaning.
Like acronym. Perhaps acrobatic, perhaps nimble: flipping back and forth to plant a signpost atop each word. It seemed more like a magician’s top hat, portal to some overflowing warren of rabbits. A pocket universe… whatever that was.
Sometimes words had multiple meanings.
* * *
The front door. The wildwood trails. The deepening path to the creek. The inner perimeter of the trees, overlooking the field. Slow and copious experimentation. The eye-spies showed a broadcast light that flickered, then died when out of range of the cabin.
Trial and error. It took Lars a year to properly canvass the area. Finished, he could survey all approaches.
While placing the eye-spy beneath the broken ladder, he decided to scale the wall. Atop the cabin was a shed—an observation room. It had windows, if nothing else.
Lars left it empty, but placed eye-spies on the uppermost outer corners of the cabin, aimed at the horizon.
* * *
Ten years passed. Lars slowly improved his conditions.
The climate never changed, so Lars never worried about the elements. When he felt confined, Lars would foray into the wilds on extended patrols. The patrols were uneventful, with the exception of honing Lars’s hunting skills. He stopped bringing provisions, as the first nights he could catch small creatures, furred or feathered, somewhat quickly. The last day offered larger animals, though with some wait. These Lars stalked close enough to home to allow final dressing at the cabin.
Game was plentiful, if unseen. It appeared when Lars looked.
Creating an interior stairwell to the roof was a large task. Between testing the charges and creating blast shields to localize the explosion, Lars was proud the cabin still stood. He still had all his fingers.
Once the opening was made, more time to chisel away and smooth the well. Then, ladder access sufficed. Later, as Lars developed plans for the roof, rudimentary stairs proved necessary. More time in the machine shop: pressing and cutting sheet metal, hole punching, soldering, mounting, reinforcing.
Lars debated his next task.
ADVANCEMENT REQUIRES NO SURVIVORS.
The words remained. Like a phantom limb.
He awaited other participants. Yet as each tomorrow broke today…no sign.
Lars began planning outside confrontation. He hauled earth upstairs to the roof, sectioned areas off with plastic pipes, and spread dirt thick.
More time. Lars’s grasp of time had slipped. Days and nights indicated rest cycles. Seven-day cycles were a week; fifty-plus weeks were a year…
Lars had forgotten how long since before coming.
Instead, Lars measured time by projects: their finish, maintenance, and evolution. For accomplishment marked itself, but rarely stood alone. Instead, it was more like an idea, creeping forward one synapse at a time, reframing parameters as it advanced, isolated until it could see further.
The garden was such a case: the rooftop offered a protected space to nurture growth. The notion birthed necessity of access. Access demanded development. And development required that Lars find something to grow.
The solution was waste. Animal waste. Once again, Lars had only to look.
It took time—and patience—to systematically raise each seed, determine its nature, then culture or choke it. His efforts yielded cherries and apples, carrots and turnips. Lars reserved a whole corner for a rugged grain he had discovered. Time, Lars had. Patience, he’d learned. What he had not had in recent memory was…bread.
Soon, he had that. Fixing the toaster took longer.
Lars held a piece of recooked bread above himself. He framed its burned crescent against the firmament.
Lars lay atop the shed door. He had removed it to serve as a worktable; it had remained so. And while, on occasion, he had bunked down either on it or in the shed, he always lounged upon it while watering the garden.
Lars liked stargazing. Weapon sights made decent telescopes, but it was more comfortable to regard the sky unencumbered. The desk screen most often showed the feed from the high eye-spy, one he’d placed on the rooftop on impulse. The constellations intrigued him.
Their fixed points were comfort.
Lars lay on the shed door, eating toast, watering the garden, staring at the stars. A breeze misted his face, and again he admired his foresight in sectioning the garden with pipes, spigots inserted for proper water distribution. A good idea, but from where? For that matter, how did plants grow naturally?
Rain, he remembered. Of course.
There was a deep rumble. Clouds appeared and spread.
Wind tore across the roof. Lars scurried into the shed, narrowly avoiding the downpour at his heels. He stared dismayed at the storm door, then at the doorstep. The dirt levels created a depression around the uncovered doorway concrete, a slight doorsill being the only impediment to a possible waterfall. Lars went to gather towels.
Rain. How could he have forgotten rain?
Lars watched the screen as raindrops beaded and blossomed.
Rain came from water evaporation, from plant transpiration. Air currents rode temperature variations; water vapor rode its coattails. Humidity levels triggered rain. So did temperature in relation to atmospheric height. Lars recalled making a simple barometer with a jar, balloon, and popsicle stick. However, wherever, whenever that had been.
The rain fell in sideways sheets.
Lars could hear drops in the bucket under the stairs.
Rain traveled by wind. Wind moved into the vacuum of departing air. Weather patterns emerged based on the cycle of air-front movement. Likewise, the rotation of the planet…
Lars frowned. He minimized the feed and opened the recording from twenty-four hours ago. Then one from forty-two hours ago. Forty-eight. Seventy-two. Eighty-eight. Ninety-six. Soon he had a border of identical screenshots, the center footage running in reverse, according to the time imprint. At 7:30 in the morning, it became daylight. At 19:30, it became dark. Over and over, faster and faster as time reversed course. The screen flickered as days retreated. Light-dark, on-off, blink-blink. Until it reached the day of activation, slowed briefly as a hand grabbed it, spun it round. Lars saw himself as the frame froze.
The center screen went blank. Lars stared at his reflection.
He rubbed a smooth, unshaven chin.
The heavens fell. It was a welcome sight to Lars.
At 1,137,317,852 seconds, Lars stepped into the standing roof water.
At 1,137,318,437, Lars plugged an extension cable into a device he carried.
At 1,137,318,523, the electric toaster dropped into water.
Lars’s body was a lightning rod. His teeth sparked. His body convulsed as aerobic muscle struggled to become anaerobic, the oxygen bubbling back into gas. He swallowed his tongue, lungs desperate for air. His synapses fired as one. His vision darkened.
At 1,137,318,583, Lars’s eyes closed to see: ADVANCE.
I was a pilot fish cleaning a whale. I ate from him until he died, then I was huge and pilot fish ate from me. Then I died.
Gray walls. Aquamarine paint chipped above grungy tiles. Phosphorescent caulk glowing mildew. The walls crept by. Lars, nude in a wheelchair, felt light.
I sang a song to my brother. He cut out my tongue and stole my song. I learned to whistle and gave him song so sad as to burst his heart.
Lars heard other thoughts, other voices. He saw others in wheelchairs, sat next to one, stretching in line down the hall. As they paused, rolled a foot or two, then paused again, they were attended by hollow staff: paper-mache clothes draped over empty figures, propelling the chairs forward one invisible step at a time.
I was leprous. I was promised an eternal harem if I caused the meltdown. I’d assumed I’d be healed.
The wheelchair in front of Lars suddenly rotated sharply. The wall shimmered. Incarnadine robes whirled as they pushed the chair through, the wall hardening behind them.
“Must have still been attached to his manhood,” said the figure next to Lars.
Its hair was long, beard scraggly and unkempt, eyes hidden by cataracts.
The vestments pushing behind it were a worn suit, fabric hanging around the neck, and a small round cap floating where the head should have been.
Lars processed the comment. Comprehension dawned. The invalids were incomplete. Not one had legs. When he found his own missing, he curiously investigated.
Nothing. No legs. No genitalia.
Lars noted these facts, unconcerned.
I was a janitor in the library of Alexandria. I could not read. Not once did I hear a human voice. One day I sneezed and the walls collapsed.
Lars focused on the voice beside him. It continued.
“Have you ever been a mountain? Of course not. Me neither. But I hated this raven beyond reason. With every beakful of gravel, he carried more of me away. None of my avalanches could kill it. Yet my hate gradually consumed itself. When I was naught but dust, I praised the bird and thanked it for its effort. I blew my final grains upon his feet to save him his last flight…”
I was a grape on a cliffside. A man ran off the cliff to escape a tiger. He clung to my vine and discovered a tiger at the cliff foot. He chose to pause and devour me. I choked him.
Lars distinguished the hallway’s end: a set of swinging doors, blinding light pouring out as invalids cycled through the portal.
Lars also distinguished an irritant. As his wheelchair advanced, he heard distinctly heavy footsteps.
Lars turned to discover the source: his attendant, a tarnished and dilapidated suit of armor.
I was a pie chart. Not sure what I measured, but it fluctuated. Sometimes other factors inserted themselves, which was always uncomfortable. Then one day, there was nothing to compare. Was I full, or empty? A hundred percent? Or zero?
The lone wheelchair before him rolled through the door. Then it was Lars.
The figure beside him suddenly grabbed Lars’s hand.
“You know,” said the blind man, “if this were a bar, this would be one hell of a joke.”
Lars grinned fiercely. Then let go.
I was a red bubblegum ball in a glass jar. There were 966 red bubblegum balls in the jar and one blue bubblegum ball. Every day I was a different piece. But, now and again, when least prepared…I’d be blue.
COMPLETE. SAVE BEFORE CONTINUING?
The cabin was abandoned when she found it. Or so the words told her.
And the words were all she carried with her as she emerged from the forest…
M.H. Burkett has appeared or is forthcoming in Oregon Magazine, Reed Magazine, Stirring, Forge, and Buffalo Art Voice. He has always been a storyteller, regardless of form. While having written for years, he has also developed that into spoken word performances, two bands, and quite the stockpile of recordings. He has recently begun experimenting with both stop-motion animation, the tradition of “found” musical instruments, and various projects in different media… much to the aggravation (and occasional pleasure) of his two children and ever-patient wife.
M.H. is currently working on a first novel.
See what he does with an empty house for a week here: