Echoes in The Canyon
written by: Sterling Pohlmann
I have taken this journey of life in cars held together by duct tape and rope, in stretched limousines. These years have seen me jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, base jumping, and white-water rafting. Out of everything I have seen, there is only one that has haunted me every night for the last 27 years. It was the night I lost my friend Zach. I have kept this secret because no one ever would, or could, believe me.
Zach and I met in the high school journalism class our freshman year of high school. He looked like every depiction of Superman I had ever seen. Except that the blue-black hair he had was wild unless cropped super short. He was so pale he looked grey.
But he was every bit as muscly as his comic book doppelganger. By contrast, I was hospital thin with stringy thin blonde hair. The other kids called us “Thick and thin.” When he saw that I was wearing the T-shirt of the local radio station he loved as much as I did, he introduced himself. We struck up a conversation and we became inseparable for the rest of his short life. We walked together to school, from school, ate breakfast and lunch together every day until our summer break.
We lived in a city, but it was a much smaller city back then, which meant that at night we owned the city. We could skate down the vacant freeway, or wander in through parks, cemeteries, and apartment complex swimming pools if we could stay out of the sight of the security guards, and out run them if spotted.
After the last day of our freshman year, we decided to go out after our parents went to sleep. We wanted to go to our favorite clearing by a river up in the nearest canyon. It took nearly an hour by bike to reach it, so we did not go as often as we would have liked, but we planned on making this an all-nighter and well past sunrise event as the perfect end to a really great year. It was 12:45 am and my dad finally passed out drunk on the living room couch.
So, I turned the stereo down, covered him in an Afghan blanket, and turned off the light. I made my bed to look as if I were still laying in it by using a Halloween wig over a bowling ball on the pillow. Then I snuck out of my room through my window, leaving it cracked just enough so that I could get back in when the time came.
I hopped on my mountain bike and headed over to Zach’s house where I parked in the front on the street. Zach was already on his bike waiting, checking his watch. “If you had taken even five more minutes to get here, I was going to scrap our plans and go to bed,” he said, “But you are here now so let’s go, moonlight’s a wastin’.”
We rode east following the main road under the streetlights, most of which were burned out, watching homeless people beg for loose change, coffee, and food from whoever was walking into the gas station we passed.
We saw parking lots of night clubs and bars with throngs of people leaving since last call was 1am back then. We rode up the canyon and out of the city. We saw only a few people camping with all of them fast asleep. Because it was dark, I realized I did not recognize the area. I was lost. Zach had a borderline supernatural sense of direction. And so, I trusted that if he were lost, he would say so. Then we saw the dirt road fork and we went left. “Where are we?” he asked, “I have no idea. I thought you knew” I said. “I thought you knew!” he said, “we are so screwed right now” we both said simultaneously.
Up ahead of the fork maybe a thousand feet we saw an old wooden shack I had not seen before, I wondered if this was like an archaic clubhouse from his childhood since it looked to have been haphazardly built by kids.
“We are the blind leading the blind. We make an awesome but totally incompetent team. Mistakes like this will be the death of both of us,” he said. “What do we do now?” I asked. “Let’s go check this cabin out. Since we are already here and what not,” he said. “I have seen movies that end just like this. So, no, I do not want to wander into the dwelling of some ghost, demon, or otherwise undead being,” I said.
“Oh. Oh, you’re a scared little boy?” he asked in a baby talk voice. “Shut up. I fear no man. I do not even believe in ghost, demons, and the undead. But that is only when there’s sunshine on the ground, at 1 am in the woods in an abandoned shack probably built by Ted Bundy, I am a little more open minded,” I said.
We parked our bikes up against the back side on the shack under the window of this homemade monstrosity. We walked around it until we found its door and walked in. Zach used his zippo as a light. We found a room littered with white sheets of paper, odd metal pieces, and a table with scattered books on it. The one room shack was maybe 200 square feet. It was not small, it was miniscule. Zach started leafing through the books and finding writing in languages neither of us knew. Then we started seeing symbols on the pages. I recognized a few as being related to demonology.
I explained to Zach what I knew they meant and that we should go. Even if we wanted to sleep for a couple hours, there was not much room for that there. Zach insisted on trying to read some of what he was seeing since one of the many passages was in Latin and he had taken it as an elective the last few years of school, though he readily admitted to being rusty and making mistakes between the word for boy and the word for man, for example.
He read the sloppy writing as best he could in a crisp Italian accent saying, “venit ad me, et intra,” he stumbled over the words but then corrected himself and read it again, “possidere animo,” and then he spoke the last lines on the page he had held up holding the zippo so close to the page it started to turn yellow and burn, “Ego commercia libera mortali vita ad aeternam servus,” he said. I never took Latin, so I have no idea what he said, but I know it provoked something in those woods, something that shocked not just me, but the fates as well.
I feel tears welling in my eyes as I write this. Just then the door opened with a gust of wind and slammed so hard against the wall that a framed picture fell against the floor breaking the glass. And then it slammed shut just as quickly. The papers scattered across the room and seemed to envelope us in a swirling mess like a dust devil of scraps of paper.
I tried for the door, but it was locked, or it was stuck in its frame. The zippo had been blown out and Zach could not get it started again. At this point Zach was scared and not concerned with the child-like appearance of his terror. We both felt fight or flight terror.
That was when the window under which we parked our bikes blew into the inside of the shack we were trapped in spraying us both with broken glass. Zach tried his zippo lighter again and got it working. He picked up the curtain from the floor where it had been blown and used it as a make-shift torch. The shack began to shake. I thought it was an Earthquake, but it was worse than that.
A dark figure in grey robes appeared in the corner. It looked at us from behind hallow eyes and a gaunt face. It smelled like burnt matches. The smell from the make-shift torch was musty. But the smell from this entity was like holding up a dozen struck matches to your nose. The entity looked like the vampire in the Nosferatu movie from 1922, pale skin, long unnaturally pointy features, and claw-like fingers. While I recoiled at the stench and sight of it, Zach said, “Follow me.”
Then he threw the torch at the hooded figure and then turned running full tilt at the locked door busting it open and falling to the ground with it. I jumped over Zach and turned back to help him up. He raised one arm with his palm up as if to say stop.
He said, “Get on your bike and get out of here. I’ll be right behind you.” But the entity was right behind him crouching down and moving on him like a Lion on a wounded Zebra. I paused. He yelled, “I said GO!”
The Cabin was consumed by flames as I hopped on my bike and went so fast down the canyon that I could not peddle any faster. I heard Zach’s screams echo through the canyon. I was moving as fast as the bike could go.
I parked it by the garage when I got home. I was so panicked I do not remember anything about my trip back home. I just remember the smell of burnt matches followed me all the way home. I took a shower to wash the night off me, but I have never been able to clean my conscious for having left Zach to fend for himself. He never came home. There were news stories in the paper, specials by local news channels on TV, and hundreds of people searching for him, followed by a candlelight vigil at school, and a full-page obituary in our 1995 high school yearbook. No one ever found a trace of Zach. I never found a trace of the wooden shack. And I never said a word about any of it.
I have kept this secret every day until just now, writing it out to trying to banish these memories. I am trying to make these pages remember what I need to forget. In the years that have passed, I have become a father and a grandfather. I have children older now than he was then. Knowing that I have outlived him by more years than he spent living, I wonder if I have earned these extra years that he gave me. I know my family loves me and are grateful to have me. But at night when the wind howls, I feel like my extra years were not a gift but were stolen.
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- Echoes in The Canyon - June 1, 2022