The Caretaker

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The caretaker sensed his next stop nearby. Maps and guidance systems could only ever provide an approximation. To fully arrive, he’d first need to observe and establish certainty.

He turned off the coastal highway and followed the sign for a campground, leaving the churning roar of the ocean behind and slipping beneath a blanket of Sitka boughs and shadow. He slid a device under an unfolded and unused map as he reached over to crank the truck’s passenger window open. A green-vested campground attendant smiled at him.

Before the caretaker had a chance to ask his question, the attendant spoke. “What brings you here?”

The caretaker scanned the campground. Apart from the attendant’s trailer, he noted the nearest sites were empty. The closest tent occupied a spot two hundred yards away though he observed no vehicle present. A creek murmured somewhere in the ferns just loud enough to be heard above the idling engine.

“An odd question,” he finally replied to the attendant.

“Odd? How so?”

The caretaker’s level gaze once fixed on an undefinable point outside the windshield firmly pinned the man.

“Do you often ask people what brings them here?”

The attendant shifted uncomfortably. A breeze sent the tall spruce trees swaying. With it, the forest clattered and groaned, a menagerie of beasts baying and snapping their jaws in anticipation.

“Well, what can I help you with then?” he asked.

“I’d wanted to ask for directions to Yachats, but I may not need to drive that far.”

“Oh, well, Yachats is right up the way, ‘bout eight miles.”

“I might not need to go there.”

“Where to then? You wanna campsite?”

The caretaker checked his rearview mirror. His gaze went back to the windshield.

“Is this place safe?”

“Safe? How so?”

“The bathrooms over there. Do you clean them?”

“Every day. Twice.”

“What do you use?”

The attendant barked a nervous laugh. “And you say I got the oddball questions.”

“What do you use?”

“Whatever they give me. Bleach, I suppose.”

The caretaker examined the man’s exposed neck. No mask draped there, his nose flaring with each breath, his mouth partly open to show straight teeth, yellowed with disdain.

“But are you safe?”

“You’re talking ‘bout the virus then.”

“What do you know about the virus?”

“Oh, I figured that out a long time ago. It’s nothing.”

“Could mean your life or death.”

“Mine?”

“Yours.”

The attendant squinted into the fathomless eyes. “Don’t think so. All a bunch of hooey.”

The caretaker reached toward the map. Alert, the attendant’s gaze followed. “Can I capture your image?”

“Don’t see why not.”

From underneath the paper, the caretaker withdrew the device. He pointed it at the attendant.

“Strange camera. That a new phone?”

“Photos can show a piece of you. A side you can’t hide.”

“What? Like them natives thinking their soul gets sucked into a picture? More hooey. I don’t buy into superstitions.”

“That so?” The caretaker leveled the device. The control screen spread ghastly pale light over the blemish-free skin of his face, ageless and new. His pupils flickered with a reddish glow. “You’re a rational person then.”

“I get by. You done with your photo?”

“What if I said it was rational what those people thought about their souls.”

“I’d say you’re crazy.”

“Rational because you’re nothing more than a collection of particles lumped together by forces nobody can fully describe, but finite all the same. And you only exist by virtue of me.”

The attendant licked his lips. He eyed the door to his travel trailer behind him then glanced up the empty road.

“Out there and to the right. Takes you straight to Yachats.”

The caretaker held the device steady. A light blinked on top. Green. Pulsing.

“You exist because I observe you. Once I look away, you’re no longer there. Your particles, all the smallest pieces of you, have no given state.”

“You need to leave now.”

“You sure you want me to do that?”

“Absolutely.”

“Absolutes are for the superstitious.”

“I don’t need any more of your talk. Get on down the road.”

The light on the device ceased blinking. The caretaker examined the screen, his eyes flitting rapidly, pupils jittering unnaturally. The glow of the screen strobed. His face shrouded into shadow then flared again like the opening of a crypt.

“I told you I’d found what I needed. All I’m doing now is scanning for my next destination.”

“Scan elsewhere.”

The caretaker did not look up but kept the man on the periphery of his sight. “I’m letting you have a few moments more.”

The attendant stood fixed to the spot. He removed his hat and swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He slapped the hat back on and scrubbed his chin.

“What’d you do?”

“I could tell you, but you’d think it hooey.”

“Well, tell me and let me decide.”

Those empty eyes regarded the attendant. “You aren’t capable.”

The attendant gritted his teeth and spit. Fists rammed against his hips, feet planted. “How could your equipment know that?”

“The device only verifies what is real.”

The attendant tried to laugh but the chuckle came out hoarse and broken. “I’m plenty real.”

The caretaker stared out the windshield and placed his hands on the steering wheel. Beside the truck, the attendant inched forward in anticipation. Without turning his head, the caretaker asked, “What else do you know. About the virus.”

One eye squinted, the attendant gazed toward the campground, the gravel road winding deeper into the woods. His hand went to his pocket, searching for answers and found it empty.

“Nothing but propaganda sent over by the Communists. They want to bury us with it like Khrushchev says.”

“Bury you with hooey? A political leader who ceased to exist fifty years, two months, three days, seven hours and fifty-three seconds ago?”

“No, you don’t understand. The Chinese got it made then sent it here, but it isn’t…” The attendant squirmed and stared blankly across the road toward the creek. “They make you wear the masks just for the cameras and they inject you with trackers in that so-called vaccine — “

The caretaker slowly shook his head. His foot lifted off the brake. Blindly, the truck crept forward.

The attendant kept pace, his voice rising with the increasing speed. “They want to steal your choice! Your speech! They’re making big pharma rich! Enabling the pedophiles!” His words came frantic now as the truck gained momentum. He ran beside it, his fingers latched to the window frame. “The flu!” he shouted, his clawed grip slipping. “They combined it with the flu!”

Spent, the attendant slumped and slid away, his form made vague by the dust kicked up from the tires. The caretaker watched him in the side mirror. When he was about to remove his gaze, the man bolted upright and tossed his hands into the air.

“It’s real,” he shouted. “The virus is real!”

Brakes squealed as the caretaker brought the heavy truck to a stop. He slipped the gear shift into park. Impatient, he drummed the steering wheel with his fingers.

The attendant raced toward him, the stop lamps bathing him in virulent shades, highlighting the splotches of strain on his cheeks and neck. He slumped against the side of the truck, chest heaving. “It’s real.”

“And who are you? What is your function?”

The attendant gave a puzzled stare. “I’m the campground host.”

The caretaker grunted. It might have been belated approval. “That’s too bad.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’ve already been quarantined. Removed from circulation.”

The attendant glanced at the device. “Well, put me back!”

“Not possible.”

“This state stuff? My particles? Are they in there?” He perched on the open window, tense, ready to reach inside.

“No, you’re right where I can see you. That’s the only place now.”

“Well, how do I be everywhere? All the time?”

“You don’t anymore.”

“Why are you going then? You said you didn’t need to go.”

“I said I didn’t need directions from you anymore. I have a new place to be. Another vector. The simulation must run smoothly after all.”

The attendant stared, mouth open, his mind somewhere between comprehension and madness, the precarious position where all reality rested and with which he’d lost equilibrium. He lunged for the device.

An impossible grip seized the attendant’s arm. It was as if an iron bar had clamped down, braced against the pillars that held the Earth. He found no spark in the caretaker’s eyes. The grip released and the attendant pulled his arm to his chest with great care. He wilted away from the truck window.

“You don’t want to go painfully. It would be irrational. Go in wonder. Choose your final state.”

The truck pulled away, the caretaker keeping the host in the rearview as long as possible.



Categories: Free Fiction

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