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The Real Deal
Posted on Jan 28, 2011
The trail narrows along the edge of a high wall of rock. Fifty yards above, an ancient rockslide fills a wide bowl in the mountainside. Splintered wood spars and lengths of rusted sheet metal jut from the scree. The network’s holding company had acquired the island from a bankrupt mining outfit. It had taken three years to make the place hospitable enough to bring a crew, and still they are forbidden, at the underwriters’ insistence, to eat anything that grows or grazes in the island’s soil. A clause in each player’s contract indemnifies the network against “food-related medical liability.”
Needing to take a piss, the producer scrambles over loose rocks and spots a narrow opening. The network maps had said nothing about a cave. Most of this sector was shaded out, marked Ballard Corp. Operations Zone. HR would have a fit if they knew he were here.
The cave smells of ammonia and rotting meat, an acrid tang of metal that scrapes in the back of his throat. He shuffles in a few yards, gloom slipping over him like a bank robber’s mask. Feeling for a wall with his free hand, he waters the stone with piss and squints farther into the dark. The floor is slick with oily slime; after a dozen yards he can feel the roof lowering. He has no flashlight, not even a cigarette lighter. In his pocket, one hand clutches a small stone, turns it over and over, smooth and cool against his fingertips.
Sound is strangely distorted, as though different mixes are coming through different channels; he can’t tell if the scuffling in his ears is the echo of his footsteps or the defensive movements of something feral and blind. He presses on, heart quieting, breath slowing into keen concentration. There’s something here, something strange and numinous, something he ought to be able to use—but he doesn’t want to think too hard about it yet. Better to let it germinate, worm its own slow route into his consciousness. This is where twelve seasons’ ideas have come from: glimmers nursed with days of silence, unresponsive to everyone around him. Armand used to joke that it was a “quasi-autistic” kind of genius. His wife called it “going away,” as in: Why bother coming home?
When something slaps against the side of his head he cries out and crouches, one palm squelching in guano. The air is troubled and thick over his head, the sound of his breathing almost deafening, broken up by a rush of flutters and squeals as the cavemouth fills with quotation marks that bunch together and blow apart and disappear.
There had been bats in Benin, too—Season Six. Bats in the Tetons—Season Eight. They’d considered using bats into Antarctica, but it tested badly. Still, it’s been a while, he thinks, carefully straightening, slowing his breath the way his yoga teacher showed him. They ought to be able to do something here on the island. The sprout of an idea inches a little higher as he makes his way back to the entrance.
Eyes adjusted, he stops just before the entrance to frame a shot: treetops, ocean, a sliver of the command center’s curved metal roof. He examines what at first look like brown smudges on the rock wall, but upon closer inspection turn out to be drawings, climbing up and around the entrance, arranged in haphazard rows. He runs his fingertips over the crude images: stick figures, arrows, a sun and a moon, something that’s either a giant spider or a bear. Higher up, something that looks like a mountain breaking in two. A bird.
The producer frowns. What were they trying to say? All this time in their shit-stinking cave, and all they drew was what they saw every day. Why couldn’t he find a symphony written in the stone? Some unimagined wisdom of the ancients? But no, it turns out the island’s former inhabitants were just as banal as the Deserted. His three-year-old niece could have drawn this crap.
Five, he corrects himself. His niece is five. Or six.
Still, he stares at the drawings for a long time. His pulse slows, his vision narrows. There’s something here, he thinks. Something more than local flavor. We’ve got more local flavor than we know what to do with. We’ve got binders full of it. Wardrobe assistants paid to think of nothing else. But this is different.
Beyond the cavemouth the wind is rising. The gusts resolve into the sound of rotors, a pall of grit blowing across the stone, the whine and roar of the network helicopter rising out of the basin to fetch him. Time to get back to work. He looks for a stick to scrape the drying shit off his shoes but decides not to bother.
He’s collected them from every corner of the world: deserts, prairies, barrier reefs, pre-Columbian ruins, Pleistocene formations, catacombs, ice floes. Varied in size, shape, and color, veined with metal or jutting with crystal, his collection is housed in a teak showcase that goes, by contract, wherever he goes, sitting like a monument in his private quarters.
The quarters themselves are spartan, a double-wide trailer with raised ceilings and hardwood floors, half of which is taken up by his meditation space. No one may enter without invitation; by standing order the APs may call the red phone only in case of nuclear war or act of God. Back in the day, he’d wait until Week 7 and then bring some twenty-year-old intern here, fuck her acrobatically on the hardwood while rain-scented mist shot from atomizers in the walls and hidden speakers played Tibetan chants recorded by his yoga teacher. But now he spends his off-hours in the lotus position, sipping green tea and contemplating rocks.
The one he keeps in his pocket is the newest addition, a reddish ovoid no bigger than a dog-tag, cracked obliquely and speckled with shiny black chips. He found it one morning last spring on the northern edge of Puget Sound. He was sprinting barefoot on a secluded, stony beach—the soles of his feet shredding, a blinding ecstasy of pain that shot up into his jaw and forced a high howl into his throat; bleeding and exhausted, he stopped, needing something hard in his hand, needing to throw it with enough force to dislocate his shoulder. Arm cocked, he caught sight of an airplane, a glint at low altitude banking toward distant Seattle, and stopped.
The plane, silent and tiny, glided down through the sky. “No more,” he’d said, panting a cold cloud. He knelt on the beach, let the pain diffuse through his body. This rock would mark the end of it, he decided, a symbol of his decision to leave the pain behind. He squeezed it until his hand throbbed, then slipped it in his pocket and limped back into the woods.
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