by Terence Hannum
The circular rhythm repeats on the first and last syllable of the song, and even though I know the call of the whip-poor-will is synthetic it still beckons me from my dream. Its song echoes off of the rocks and trees as the false sun dapples the top of my gray tent with perfectly replicated Rayleigh scattering.
My dreams are only of tunnels, endless and subterranean. I do not recognize them, even if they are familiar, and they never end. Everything is tunnels now. When I dream it is as if I am just catching up with something that has already started. Each time I sleep I am just further. Deeper.
The ascending lossless tones of a cardinal filter through the thin, pumped-in atmosphere. Demi sleeps sprawled across the air mattress clutching her scuffed baby doll close to her face in the fake sunlight. Rodney is outside the tent, nursing the flames in the firepit, while the voices on his work radio punctuate the air.
Outside, I place my hands close to the fire, as close as I can before its radiation hurts.
It’s real—as real as we can get, Rodney assures me as he separates the bacon in the pan. The heat on my hands in the cool of the simulated morning air feels right somehow. I jot this down on my small tablet with a stylus.
The fire. You have to rate the fire? he says, exasperated.
It’s not exactly the fire. More how it feels. The memories it brings up. It’s why we’re here.
The flame’s color spectrum is accurate down to the gleaming vermillion from the gray cracks of ash. Good job.
How about, to eat some bacon? Rodney asks, crunching a piece from the red pan.
I just love a man who gets up and has to rate the fire I lit for him.
I snag a piece of bacon from his hand and chew through it. It disintegrates in my mouth. The grease does not hide the hydrogen of the trans fats—counterfeit.
This isn’t real—
Are you fucking kidding me?—
It’s delicious. I offer a truce and Rodney pulls at the shiny gray collar of his antimicrobial shirt.
That’s more like it.
I sit next to him and put the tablet back in my flannel shirt pocket. He looks off, away from me, at the depth of the woods.
How far did you run? I ask.
Maybe two miles, the path loops.
I look at our golf cart at the end of the site. There is a small beaten path next to the cart and a brief road to the main office and other campers. I grab another piece of fake bacon.
Loops, always loops, I say.
You going to put that in your notes?
He runs his hand through my uncombed hair.
No. It’s a given, I say. It just depends how aware of the loop you become. But if you’re only here for a few days it won’t bother you.
Rodney nods then cracks an egg over his skillet.
Is it breakfast? Demi’s small voice comes from the tent.
Come and get it.
She stumbles out of the tent.
Watch out sweetheart, don’t drop your baby in the fire.
Hey, do you want to go swimming? Rodney asks me. His eyes are closed as he basks in bogus sun.
I wanted to do a hike. I need to see how far it goes today.
Rodney doesn’t say anything, just looks annoyed behind his closed eyes and relaxes his arms across his chest in supplication to the artificial sun god.
Well, we’ll go without you.
It’s far. I’ll meet you there.
I watch Demi play by the large trees that tower over us. She’s crafted a fort of sticks and pebbles all presided over by her dirty baby doll.
A golf cart pulls in with the manager of the campground at the wheel. He wears khaki shorts and a lightweight green shirt with the campground’s insignia emblazoned over his breast.
The owner is incredibly happy to have us.
Hi, Luther, I say as he stops the cart and I walk towards him.
Sean. How are you finding everything?
I stand next to his cart and hide how impressed I am at the details. Demi has run to my side and looks up at the man.
Good, tonight we’ll be having a bonfire if you’d like to come. You’ll be our guests of honor.
There’ll be ice cream.
He looks at Demi, and her face brightens.
We don’t eat ice cream—
Just kidding. We’d love to come, I say. Luther drives off. When I turn around Rodney stands shirtless by the tent in his bathing suit, holding towels for him and Demi.
Have a nice hike. We’re going to swim, get some sun and eat some sweet ice cream.
Demi runs to him. I try to correct him.
Can you just let me enjoy it?
Daddy, did you hear? Ice cream.
Ice cream! Get your suit on, Rodney says as Demi runs into the tent.
I know it’s your job, but has it dawned on you that it’s nice to pretend? It’s nice to eat rehydrated soy and sublimated ice, he says. I nod and grab my small pack from beside the gray tent.
Hey, just bear with me, I need to get this hike in and then I’ll know what I can recommend.
Demi bursts out of the tent in her bright pink bathing suit shouting, Do they have a slide?
I don’t know. Let’s find out, Rodney says, taking her off down the path without saying goodbye.
I look for the break. The seam. Where one thing repeats again—the end of the loop. I march deeper into the woods over dead leaves and soil and cannot find the line. Each bit of flora seems distinct. I stop in the shade of the tall trees to observe a set of ferns on the forest floor. Heights differ, leaves differ in coloration and number. Even the bark on the maple trees feels real and the gray crisscross of sutures builds as if each from an original algorithm. I make note of it on my tablet with amazement.
I push on. The rocks grow larger, more moss-covered. The golden hue of light hits their surfaces at the appropriate wavelength. I run my hands through a thick carpet of moss and listen to the sound of running water. I can taste the dampness on my tongue when I breathe in. Dampness combined with the loam of soil. It all feels accurate to my senses. It feels real even though we’re miles beneath the surface of the earth.
A small, flat centipede crosses the rock, its skin a yellowed crimson that’s almost translucent. Its legs grasp the rock and slip back to the underside in an exercise of its design. This is a true cave-dweller, not an above-ground species, and the first flaw. I note this as it disappears.
Brushing aside some branches, I go further. I find the stream, a meandering strip easy to step across. Above, the spurious sky shifts dull blue. Running my hand in the stream I realize how tired my legs are. I sit down and record in my tablet temperatures, the sequence of the audio as the evening insects play, the brush of wind faint yet unique.
Over the stream is an embankment of dried stones. Beyond that, a series of birch trees grown out of black humus. The cracks in the white bark are impossible to tally. It is impossible to find the point of repetition where the loop begins and the illusion ends.
In long stretches of loops people can lose their minds. When someone realizes that their homes or offices are a series of spaces folding in on themselves it has a negative affect on the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex. Their awareness of the repetition could override their general magnetic stimulation. People would know they were underground and then feel trapped. Claustrophobia would set in. That’s what most people would say. But I like to think we have returned to our ancestral home. From out of caves, we return to caves. It can enhance a sense of agoraphobia.
I find a gray stick jagged in the dirt. I pick it up and push through the curtain of trees. At the edge of the trees I am greeted by a yawning face of caves. The sky has shifted to the violets of evening. Ridges form the mouth of each cave, their depths obscured and abyssal.
My dream of endless caves and tunnels comes to mind, and I know I must turn around.
Rodney and Demi won’t be at the pool anymore. I turn to face the trees, but something guides me back. I clamber up a side of the stone and peer into one of the dark caves. From its maw a hot breath exhales calmly. I peer into the pitch dark. I can make out no form, no grates, no creatures guarding deeper treasures. Just the darkness like my dreams.
Using my gray stick for support I slowly find my way back. Down embankments, over the small stream, through the deep thickets—still no plants repeat. No seams draw my attention.
The bonfire crackles, casting orange light around the woods. The evening light is a deep blue only seen in movies. It shatters behind the leaves and branches. Outside the ring of light, in the darkness of the woods, I look for the seam inside myself. We’ve made this new home in our image. I want to join Rodney and Demi, playing beside the bonfire. This reality is a cycle of loops and phantasmagorias created to keep us sane. I watch them from the shadows. We are not even ourselves. My own recollections are not real, but transfers from generations when we were above ground, taken from pictures, books, movies.
I walk into the light of the fire.
How was your trip?
Rodney sits up with Demi curled on his lap. She is looking at her baby doll by the firelight.
It’s pretty authentic. Honestly, this place is amazing. I found just one flaw. I wish I could show you. It was a fascinating specimen.
Missed you too, daddy, Demi says as she rolls out of Rodney’s lap and runs to me.
How was the swimming hole?
Demi wraps her arms around my legs as the doll leaves her hand and sails into the fire. Rodney reaches out but is unable to grab it in time. I open my mouth to shout and try to reach for it. It’s too late. We all stare at the doll resting in the false flames, unconsumed by this spurious crucible.
Terence Hannum is a Baltimore, MD based artist, musician (playing in Locrian and The Holy Circle) and writer. His novella Beneath the Remains was published by Anathemata Editions and his novella All Internal will be published this year by Dynatox Ministries. His short stories have appeared in Terraform, Lamplight, Turn to Ash, SickLit,and the SciPhi Journal.