The walls were a muddle of Pueblo squash soup; the lone window was a wicked, crosshatched goat eye of blinding light that was trying to pry its way into his fevered, breathing skull. There were pastel yellow cacti seething up between the sun-scorched grey floor planks, blooming feather-headdress-ed cartoon Indians screaming football cheers in pidgin Chinese. Cross-legged on an old piss-stained futon pad, sweating profusely in the Arizona July afternoon, Decker Quall shook his head slowly; he feared if he applied vigorous force it would spin off his neck, gyroscope out the door and disappear down some dry arroyo. If it did, he'd follow it until it ran out of centrifugal force and collapse with it in the cool shadows at the bottom of the gorge. That was his plan for the moment; he'd think it through further when the peyote dream settled in to something a bit more cohesive.
Decker had scored some “buttons” from a buddy, loaded his scant belongings into his weathered white Camry wagon and taken Arizona 87 out of Scottsdale, headed north into the wastes for a little psychedelic vacation. He figured he'd end up back to his home town of Anoka, Minnesota eventually, but for now it was all about....well, nothing.
He'd been fired from his cooking job at the Cafe Carumba, which was okay with him; the place was filthy with bitchy old Minnesota tourists, anyway. Might as well be back home where the rent was manageable and the water tasted like water.
When he'd ended up in Payson with a blown radiator hose, he'd asked around about renting a squat for a few days, to “take in the scenery”. The tow truck driver, a pimply kid with a puerile sneer and a Marlboro Light pasted permanently to the corner of his mouth, had offered his dead uncle's drinking shack out on 260 “for fifty bucks. It's about 20 miles past Star Valley, up an old washed out road that used to be...I don't know what. ” he chopped his train of thought and eyed up the Camry doubtfully. “A couple miles before you get to Preacher Canyon, you'll see one of those old shaving cream signs. If it's not dark, you might see the old ruts. It's a pretty rough road. Nobody goes there on account of...well, it's hard to get to.”
It sounded like just the place. Three hours later, two hundred and fifty dollars poorer but carrying a stocked cooler and a new coolant hose, Decker raced away from the sunset, hoping to beat the darkness out to the dead man's shack and wondering how he'd know he was two miles from Preacher Canyon. A few blind runs and a lost tailpipe later, he'd found his way to the tumbledown board-and-mud hut crammed between two meat-slab boulders crouched in the rocky hills south of Diamond Point. The place had been a real mess, but he'd lucked into a serviceable hurricane lantern and a five gallon can of kerosene tucked under the trap door that was hidden by the futon. Good thing, too. He didn't even have a flashlight.
He'd played around with the car radio and drank beer that night. Good idea to get settled in before doing any of that cactus. Curled up in his battered old Herter's sleeping bag, he got his first good night's sleep in months. A morning walk revealed numerous rattlesnakes and not much of anything else. He sun-roasted up a couple hot dogs in an old baby moon hubcap he found and polished up, then set about preparing for his “trip”.
It seemed appropriate to commune with nature as he entered his altered state, but there weren't any caves nearby. He wasn't going to sit in the direct Arizona sun; he'd been out here for a couple years and had learned his lesson about that. Finally he gave up and dragged the futon near the 4-pane window, sucked down a bottle of water, and ate two of the little buttons. Hell, the old shack was almost a fixture of these dusty foothills by now, anyway.
So there he was, watching the vapor trails of his fleeing sanity refract through that painfully bright glass. The walls were breathing, the floor was undulating and sprouting, and the sun was a giant burning marshmallow. Trickles of sweat were tiny lizards racing across his skin. The shit was real. Happy fucking day.
There was a tingling on the back of his neck as he heard the wall behind him start to creak. Slowly, he scootched in a half-circle to see what the new development was. The wall was bowing inward, and the rough adobe plaster was starting to craze and flake. Each breath that the little house took cracked more of the mud off the splintering boards. “Go away!” Decker commanded, his heart a giant tympani echoing sloppily in his chest. “G'wan, leave me alone!” The back wall seemed to heed his words, and for an interminable period it synched up with the rest of the walls in a sinuous slur of breath.
Decker breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing he needed right now was a visit from some angry desert god; these crazy tribes of the Southwest had hooked up with a strange sort of mojo and he wasn't ready to explain himself to an animated Castenada-esque cactus root. I mean, sure, he'd read the guy's books; why else would he be here? But he wasn't sure how that pantheon might treat a disgruntled, disheveled, disowned and displaced white boy from snow country.
The sun freeze-framed its way across the window and down into the ragged rising mountains to the west. Shadows were starting to creep across Decker's hallucinatory indoor vegetation when the creaking and cracking of the back wall began again in earnest. Man, this was some really potent stuff! He'd figured on the high sort of planing out about now, settling in to cruise control, but it felt like the whole shack was lifting up out of its crevice! There was a rhythmic “WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP!” shaking the house, and the planks of the back wall were beginning to part inwards. Shards of desert-dry wood were spraying onto the futon, striking him in the legs and belly. He was frozen in place, with the wash of noise thundering, mixing with his careening heartbeat, when the wall finally burst inward, revealing a large, heavily-muscled man clutching what appeared to be about a thirty-pound maul in his gnarled fingers. His only garb was a crocheted loincloth; multicolored flowers tagged together with green yarn. Behind him was a near-mirror-image of the hut that Decker occupied, replete with a setting sun outside the window!
“Nuer lueen spung quntas buj oonie!”, the sledge-swinging dude expostulated, staring intensely into Decker's eyes as he yanked splintered boards off dry-rotted studs. “Nuer dulung champa!” Heaving off the last board that blocked his passage, the large man shrugged through the narrow opening and grabbed for Decker's shoulder. Decker twitched away from the thrusting hand and rolled toward the door.
What the hell are you talking about, Lil' Abner?” Nearly swooning as he struggled to his feet, Decker missed the doorknob and banged his head against the casing. He spun to face his assailant, clutching at the dusty counter for some sort of weapon. “Are you nuts? Wait, am I nuts?”
“Gur thoon nuer spung glert champa,” the big fellow replied, looking down at the hammer in his hand abashedly, then setting it on the futon, continuing in a more appeasing tone, “gur buj coo lutie vundis dulung.” He pointed out Decker's window toward a pair of rainbow-hued pterodactyls that were flapping madly toward the shack. He beckoned to the splintered hole in the wall, and urgently requested, “Puer zing thoon champa, zuey trugga fooits!”
“Oh, shit!” Decker's addled mind threatened to ooze out of his ears, but with a desperate shake of his head (he thanked his lucky stars it remained attached) he brushed the psychedelic cobwebs far enough aside to make a decision. “Fine, I'll follow you!” One last glance backward revealed a herd of blonde mastodons with shrubbery for tusks bearing down on the shack right behind the flying dinosaurs, then he tumbled through the gap and followed Mr. Sledge out the doppelganger door.
They scrambled down the hillside together, Decker stumbling along like a scarecrow as hammer guy leaped from rock to rock with a grace belied by his bulk. He pulled Decker up onto a platform of rock and continued his earlier spiel. “I'm sorry, fellow. I misrecognized you as someone else. Still, it seems you were in some danger there.”
Decker gritted his teeth and the pressure sent orange and green lightning bolts across his vision. “Well why didn't you say so before, man? ” The clustered syllables coming out of his own mouth were just as foreign to Decker's mind as they'd been in the shack, but now, mysteriously, he could understand them. “And why am I suddenly talking like this?” He paused for breath and looked around at the disorientingly similar but thoroughly alien landscape. “And why, mister hammer guy, were you beating down my wall in the first place?”
“Ah, you can understand me now. How strange are the workings of the Deity!” The big man paused, and Decker suddenly noticed that his skin was covered by a smooth layer of flesh-colored fur. “You did not ask, but I am Degren. My companion, Furge, was in the middle of a soul quest when he melted through the wall of our shelter. He looks a little like you, but isn't, um, bald. I was trying to follow him, but he obviously didn't end up where you were. Did he?”
Decker wondered why the peyote high was feeling like reality. He thumbed his chest. “Decker. I didn't see anyone except you, and I didn't expect to, either. I did expect some crazy visions. I was on a, um, soul quest, too. This is a bit more than I bargained for, though. Are you a hallucination?”
Degren eyed him quizzically, then understanding dawned. “You ate the cactus buttons. I wondered about those creatures that were coming for us. Too strange, even for an otherworld.”
There were cracking and crumbling noises coming from the hill behind them. “Uh-oh,” Decker moaned, casting a glance up toward the shack, “I think my hallucinations followed us!” One of the mastodons burst through the front wall and tumbled toward them. Three others followed, making a daintier step of it, then accelerating into a shambling downhill gallop. One of the pterodactyls emerged, wrestling its wings through the splintered remains of the front wall. They could hear others screeching behind it.
“Speaking of that,” Decker said, scratching his left ear furiously with a pinky fingertip.
“There's a cave just on the other side of that little cliff,” Degren pointed, “with an opening too small for your, uh, friends to get through. We might make it. Watch out for the snakes. Go!”
“Snakes?” Decker squeaked, hesitating. A quick glance rearward convinced him that snakes were the least of his worries, and he sprinted after his furry companion. Dodging around razor-spined cactus, leaping the occasional nest of boulders, they barely made it to the little cave mouth as the first pterodactyl swept by, claws dragging clots of loose rock off the cliff face. Decker dived in to the pitch black hole just in time; he felt something hard drag at the bottom of his left Converse as he tumbled down onto damp stone.