Not everyone believes in mountains, yet there they are, in plain sight.
Scientists insist, rather halfheartedly, that mountains are the bulging results of tectonic shifts along massive rocky plates. Mountains developed naturally over the course of many millennia, scientists say under their breaths.
Most people believe that mountains aren’t there at all. Even when mountains are visible, as they often are, nonbelievers will explain that our minds create sensory illusions to help explain what we cannot understand, like the shapes of gods and monsters in the stars, or messages in tea leaves, or government codes in cloud patterns.
Mountains, real or not, ring this desert like the rim of an empty dinner plate. Scattered sparsely along the flat middle are small towns with names like Red Mesa, Pine Cliff, and, right in the center, Night Vale.
Above Night Vale are helicopters, protecting citizens from themselves and others. Above the helicopters are stars, which are completely meaningless. Above the stars is the void, which is completely meaningful.
Through this crowded sky, mysterious lights often pass. These are just alien spacecraft, or the auras left by interdimensional travelers, but these simple explanations are boring. The people of Night Vale often come up with elaborate stories to explain the lights to themselves. (“The sky once loved a certain rock. But millennia of erosion transformed the rock to dust. The sky, not understanding, still signals for its friend who abandoned it. The rock never knew about the sky. The rock only loved the wind that was slowly eroding it.”) Sometimes it’s okay to find something beautiful without correctly understanding it. In the center of Night Vale, like in many cities, is its downtown, with the usual things a downtown has: city hall, community radio station, hooded figures, a library, a shimmering vortex blocked off with yellow police tape, dangerous stray dogs, and propaganda loudspeakers on every corner.
Beyond downtown is Old Town Night Vale, a residential and shopping area planned and developed during the booming economy of the early 1930s. After the war, the neighborhood fell into disrepair, but in recent years it has seen a regenesis of homeowners, neighborhood shops, tall metal trees, and predatory cats.
Beyond Old Town Night Vale are the sand wastes, which are exactly what you think they are. And beyond the sand wastes are the scrublands, which are sort of what you think they are. And beyond the scrublands is the used car lot, and Old Woman Josie’s house, and finally, out on the edge of town, the house of Larry Leroy.
Larry had lived by himself for as long as he could remember. He owned a phone, which was broken, and a car, which sat wheelless atop four blocks of concrete out back. Hidden under the car he had an underground shed full of canned goods and bottled water and a year’s worth of pork sausage preserved in animal fat. He used to have a shotgun, but he traded it for the car without wheels, figuring a car without wheels was safer than a shotgun. Despite the friendly reminders from the Night Vale chapter of the National Rifle Association (“Guns don’t kill people. Guns are the new kale. Guns are healthy as all get-out.”), Larry never felt safe around guns.
When he was in his early twenties, Larry’s father took him hunting. He didn’t like his father. He didn’t hate him, either. Once, when Larry reached into the back of his dad’s pickup to grab the shotgun, a scorpion resting on the barrel had stung Larry’s hand. He had distrusted guns ever since.
These days, Larry actually liked scorpions. After all, they eat squirrels, which he really hated. He rarely paid much attention to the illogical way in which the human mind develops certain phobias.
This evening, he bent over the shoe box on his desk. He was carefully pasting a tiny brown mustache he’d made from a sliver of tree bark to a tiny W. E. B. DuBois’s face. He still needed to build the arm-mounted laser cannon DuBois was known for. Larry heard what sounded like the small claws of squirrels running around in his basement, and he hoped the scorpions were hungry. He turned his attention to his miniature version of the five-headed dragon named Rachel McDaniels that DuBois often rode when speaking. DuBois spoke from a place of moral and physical authority to the intellectuals and politicians who stood in the way of equal rights for black Americans. He also spoke from the back of a flying dragon.
Larry was building a diorama celebrating DuBois’s famous defeat of the German army in 1915, depicting him and Rachel in their library, high-fiving above a copy of the declaration of surrender.
Larry adored this war hero and great orator of civil rights. He enshrined DuBois in fine detail in the cardboard shoe box. Larry’s family never cared much for history, often telling him history didn’t exist because it was no longer happening. The moment anything occurred, they would say every night at dinner, it was gone, relegated to the fiction of memory. They would say that with their heads bowed, and then they would begin eating.
Perhaps he had been a rebellious youth. Or perhaps he just wanted to explore the often wondrous, often tragic myth of human history. Larry adored his heroes: W. E. B. DuBois, Helen Keller, Redd Foxx, Luis Valdez, Toni Morrison. He believed it was his responsibility to help carry on their legacy by enshrining their great stories and deeds, so that they still felt present in the present. History is real, regardless of truth, Larry often said, not with words, but with his actions.
Tiny clothing, facial hair, painted set models, most pieces no bigger than any one of Larry’s fingers. They took a steady eye, a steady hand. Unlike most men, he had grown more steady as he aged, more dextrous in his lack of speed. He expertly placed DuBois’s mustache below the great intellectual’s nose and set the tweezers down to begin working on the diorama’s library backdrop.
Larry heard a whirring hum. He felt it throughout his body. There were undulations in the waves of the noise, smooth ups and downs, easily lulling the subconscious mind of a man hard at work. The troughs and crests of sounds accelerated, soon going from steady ululations to a bumpy roar. The metal plates and cups in his hand-built kitchen were the first to start rattling, followed by the creaking of the roof against the metal trusses.
He glanced at the earthquake calendar tacked to his wall. Agents from a vague yet menacing government agency delivered these calendars each month, sliding a manila envelope under the door in the middle of the night. According to the calendar, there was no earthquake scheduled for today.
He looked down at W. E. B. DuBois and Rachel McDaniels in their vast academic library. A drop of Larry’s sweat the size of DuBois’s head landed on McDaniels’s back, smudging the paint and knocking off the freshly glued spines.
Larry wiped his brow. He didn’t sweat often, even in the desert heat. “It’s a dry heat,” people from the desert often say to others, trying to disguise the fact that they’re kidding themselves. But the heat today was unusual. He felt it not from the air, but from below his boots, and not the heat of the sun but of friction. The sand underneath his plywood floor burned, like two worlds rubbing together.
His sleeveless brown undershirt was drenched dark down its sides. He heard the crash of metal plates and cups falling out of the doorless cabinets. The ground, his house, his whole self shook. It was not the soft wobbling slide of a government-run earthquake. This felt like being punched from below. The desert was being pounded by a giant subterranean fist.
As he stood and staggered into the living room, there was another hard thump and shake of his house. Larry tripped forward, face-first, into the frame around his open front door.
He wasn’t afraid but for his dioramas. He knew one day there would be an End to all of this, and long before that there would be an end to Larry. He was not so arrogant as to refer to his own death as The End, just one of billions of ends before The End. Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.
He knew one day he would be found deceased in his home out on the edge of town. He was unbothered by this. He may not have had children, but the legacy provided by children is limited. Few people know the details of their family past their great-grandparents, and many people don’t even remember that generation. Two generations of memory is all that children provide, and then everyone is forgotten. But he would leave behind stacks of writing, dioramas, and patchwork quilts. He had a handmade history, his attempt to offer immortality to his heroes, and perhaps extend his own story as well. Instead of a brief obituary in the Night Vale Daily Journal, he wanted his death to be a story of the discovery of his great collection, the work of his then-finished life.
He had already written letters for Sarah Sultan, president of the Night Vale Community College (instructions to donate his dioramas to the school’s art department); Leann Hart, editor of the Daily Journal; and Cecil Palmer, host of the community radio station (an obituary he had written for himself, and also ones for Leann and Cecil); and Michelle Nguyen, owner of Dark Owl Records, who would no doubt be pleased to inherit Larry’s vast collection of polka music, written, performed, and recorded himself using a concertina and a microcassette recorder. Michelle loathed any music popular enough to have been heard by more than her and the Dark Owl staff, so Larry’s tunes would be welcome. According to his will, the letters were to be delivered and his belongings distributed accordingly.
His artistic and academic endeavors were his children, a legacy that would hopefully last for much longer than two forgetful human generations.
He could feel the bruise beginning to form on his cheek from where he ran into the doorframe. He turned back into the house. The pounding from below was bringing down his kitchen and living room. He watched as the walls and ceiling collapsed and twisted into dust and scrap. Pages of his books and personal writing scattered up toward the helicopters and stars above, and fluttered lazily in the wind, like unmotivated pigeons.
Lurching forward, arms straight out, using the walls for balance, he rounded the corner back into his art studio. His DuBois and McDaniels diorama was slightly damaged, but recoverable. He picked it up.
The wall of other dioramas was still there: decades of meticulous work and loving craftsmanship. His Pride and Prejudice diorama, which had been his first, still showed the inconsistencies of a neophyte but also the bravery of a young artist. Elizabeth Bennet’s sword was soaked with blood (Larry had used his own). And for her eyes, he had used polished onyx. From wherever you stood in the room, Bennet appeared to be staring you down with the passion and vengefulness this dangerous literary villain was known for.
He set the DuBois box down on the worktable and walked toward his wall of dioramas. The long plexiglass windows were secured and locked over the displays. The thumping floor jostled him violently. He tugged a bit on each shelf, seeing they were safe but needing to touch them all to believe it.
The floorboard below Larry split. He lost his balance but regained it against the support column next to the shelves. Another loud thump and half the worktable buckled into a sinkhole growing in the floor. He saw DuBois’s box sliding down toward the opening. He jumped. He rarely jumped or did anything quickly, but now he did both. He grabbed the box, then, stepping with his right foot onto the sinking table, he pushed off, hurling himself, uncontrolled, into the far wall but managing to cradle the diorama of his favorite orator securely to his chest.
It was silent for a long moment, just Larry breathing. He heard a drop of sweat tap the floor below him. The earth was hot. His feet were beginning to cramp. His head was light. He took DuBois outside and set the box gently on the ground, safely away from the shaking building.
He grabbed his wheelbarrow out of the ditch and raced back into the collapsing house. He tossed any important documents he could find along with his letters to the people of Night Vale into the wheelbarrow. He grabbed the poems and plays he had written. He rushed back into his studio, his arms straining, wheelbarrow already half full. He set his dioramas carefully atop one another in the wheelbarrow, his life’s work a delicate pyramid of paint, plastic, and paper.
He heard the ceiling creak. He placed Jane Austen’s masterpiece on top of the others in the wheelbarrow. As he did, a loud pop and a harsh crunch. His ears were ringing immediately. He fell—or rather slid—to his knees. The floor buckled. The empty shelves collapsed. He glanced down into the hole. He saw dirt and wood and plexiglass falling. Falling, and hitting nothing. In that hole he saw a deep, endless nothing.
The floor tore away, the wood bending down into the hole below. He struggled to keep his boots’ grip on the steeply angled floor. He gave the wheelbarrow a strong push, knowing if he didn’t make it, he’d at least give the dioramas a fighting chance. The cart lurched a couple of feet and then began rolling back toward him. The pyramid of his life’s work quivered, on the verge of tumbling.
His boots were sliding. Larry gave one more great shove with his calves, his knees unbent, his body thrust upward. He pushed up the sloping floor, straining but eventually gaining traction and then momentum. He rolled his cart off the top
edge of the pit, leaping, as if from a ramp, into the living room, away from the growing hole behind him. He turned the corner and ran out the front door.
As daylight dwindled slowly across the desert, Larry emerged onto the patio. Out toward the sunset. Away from the collapsing home, and toward a collapsing earth.
The front lawn—mere pebbled dirt and leafless shrubs— was gone. Everything up to the ditch was an empty pit. The earth before him was completely gone, and with it, W. E. B. DuBois and Rachel McDaniels.
Larry barely had time to process what had happened when there came one more thump. He didn’t know it yet, but it would be the last and the most terrible. The front few steps gave way to an implosion of sand. His palms burned as the wood handles of the wheelbarrow were wrenched from his hands. Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes flashed an angry orange as she fell along with the other enshrined heroes into oblivion. He watched everything that proved he ever had existed fall into the nothing below.
Behind him, he heard the remainder of his house collapse into the pit as well. He stood on a patch of wood in an open doorframe surrounded by a growing, gaping nothing.
He stared at the earth dropping away around him. He stared at the stars and the void, which were falling upward away from him.
As the ground under his feet dropped away, as he started his fall toward the deep nothing below, Larry didn’t believe what he was seeing. Of course, he didn’t believe mountains were real either, yet there they were, in plain sight, if only for a few seconds more.
From It Devours! Used with permission of Harper Collins Publishers. Copyright © 2017 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor.