Wednesday, September 16, 2015
Introduction (updated 8/11/16)
As most things do, the beginning happens when we never expect it. The dust on the past is uncovered by the smallest winds, and when history shines through, there is nothing else that can be done but to dust the rest of it off and discover that the past, the present, and the future are still with us today.
This discovery of something completely different was an invitation from a retired Army officer who sent a personal letter to Susan Mavern. Prior to getting the mysterious missive, Susan was three years removed from college, grinding out her time as a struggling writer and elementary school teacher in northern Virginia. Occasionally, she would get stories published in small time local and state magazines or for various online outlets, but it was never anything more than subsidizing income or keeping herself busy during the summers.
However, this strange handwritten letter was different. Addressed from Colonel Marcus Powell, a man she never heard of before, the letter spoke in an official way about knowing her mother and her uncle as well as many of the people that they were related to or associated with back in the latter part of the “twenty-teens.” This familiarity sparked her interest despite the fact that her parents never talked about him before. In some way, this made sense since he acknowledged that he had lost track of her by the time she was a toddler.
To compound this sense of mystery about the early days of her mother’s life, Susan had lost her uncle when she was eight. It was a sad thing, but since she only ever saw him on the yearly vacations that her family would take to Oregon, it wasn’t like he was ever really that close to her, though he was obviously close to her mother. Nevertheless, her uncle Clarence and her mother had been an inseparable pair from the time that they entered the world, at least until he moved away to Oregon to get a job. When the family would get together, it was said that they would always have these long and serious talks that nobody was ever invited to, and when they were done, they would come back and be as close as ever, though they would also be as silent as they could be, like nothing ever happened when they went away to secretly confer.
What made these discussions really strange was that even her father wouldn’t be allowed to be around for those. As a result, he would take Susan somewhere else, and well, that was that. Most of these instances of having to avoid the siblings were spent with father and daughter bonding, but as she got older, she started to wonder about what they discussed.
“When you’re older, Susan, we will tell you more, but for now, it’s a part of growing up that you’re just not old enough for.”
“Will I be old enough when I’m ten?”
“Will I be old enough when I’m thirteen?”
“No. You might be old enough at sixteen.”
“When I’m old enough to drive?”
“Actually, I was thinking at thirty-five, when you’re old enough to be the President of the United States.”
He smiled back at her and messed up her hair.
“Don’t get old before your time, Susan. Stay young and innocent forever, like your old man.”
“Come on, Dad. What aren’t you telling me?”
“It’s hard to say since I’m not even old enough for your mom to tell me everything that she and your uncle Clarence talk about.”
At that, they both laughed.
After her uncle Clarence died, Susan’s mother would talk cryptically, at least at first, about a place called Blackrock Canyon. Despite not being there for at least twenty years, she still remembered a lot of things about it. It seemed to Susan that it was the kind of place that burns itself into your subconscious and never releases you. Susan mentioned this to her mother Mary, once, and she nodded in agreement.
“If I could, I would burn that whole place to the ground, but it would probably just laugh at me and go right on standing there as it has done since the beginning of time.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Some places just never should be. This is one of those places.”
“Is it haunted?”
“What do you know about haunted?”
“Like on television. The shows you won’t let me watch.”
“Yeah. Something like that, but this is real, and real haunting isn’t friendly ghosts and dancing ghouls. It’s something internal, a feeling mixed with a presence, but it still scares you. That’s Blackrock.”
“What else is Blackrock Canyon like?”
“That’s enough for now.”
The look she gave her daughter silenced anymore requests and even kiboshed the sour look that might have poked through the moment.
Throughout the years, Susan learned a lot of things about Blackrock, and the meaning became closer to her heart and her history, despite the fact that it seemed to be a desolate and mysterious place. Granted, it was more beautiful than some of the archaeological sites and cliff dwellings that hid themselves in these rock-strewn mountains, but it was very all-consuming and eerie, like a thick fog that rolls in from the sea and envelops the coast.
“The Greers of old would never talk about these archaeological ruins and their meaning with their girl children. It was only for the boys, but you’re different. For that, you will someday learn about this place,” her mother once said. “Even if I don’t teach you, someone else will.”
And for a time, Susan was interested in learning about this rocky world of Native Americans and ghosts and the white men who encountered them, and during that time, she was told things, always vaguely and in age-appropriate ways, but she came to know a little bit here and a little bit there. After this, makeup and boys and sports and her driver’s license came into her life, so there was no time for archaeological digs. Susan was just so into being normal that the history of people she would never meet didn’t seem that exciting to her anymore.
Besides, there was something about this family history that felt like a curse to her, and that was the kind of thing she wanted to abandon altogether.
Nevertheless, history has a way of dragging us back in, and this happened for Susan when her mother and father were killed in a car crash after she graduated from college. This brought forth a two-front sadness of familial loss and the fact that she never did find out what went in those holes that the earlier conversations between her mother and her were filled with.
And then, just like that, three years passed, and she got the letter from Colonel Powell during a period of “what the hell am I going to do with my life.” For all the mystery it opened, it also sucker punched her and brought her back to Blackrock and those ancient days of mystery, which her mother and uncle spoke about in such hush-hush tones.
Susan and her husband Jim Mavern walked out of the Big Rocks Nursing Home in Cortez, Colorado. Her home in Front Royal, Virginia, was a million miles away from this dried up and all but forgotten desert town outside of Mesa Verde National Park. After talking with Powell by letter and then by phone, she and her husband agreed to take a vacation here when they realized how serious the letter was concerning its impacts on her family’s history.
What’s more, there were authentic things inside these conversations that only he would know. From descriptions of Mary and Clarence to the grandparents that she had never really known, but known of, it all made sense. In fact, it made too much sense to be a mere coincidence that he would contact her as a prank. What’s more, there was a baby picture of her mother and uncle with her grandparents, who she had also never known.
“You can have anything from my collection that you want, but you can’t give people my name, at least while I’m alive,” Powell said.
“Isn’t there someone more deserving of the honor of compiling this history?”
“I never married, and I have no illegitimate kids, at least that I know of,” he laughed. “Let alone nieces and nephews.”
“Don’t be. Blackrock Canyon was my life. I met some great people in those days. I wish you could have met them, too, or maybe just known them longer.”
“I know,” she said trying to hold back a tear for the relatives she knew while not really thinking about these other people whose names that he just mentioned as anything other than names from the past. Through it all, she did her best to be kind to the ninety-year old man who was sitting in a chair in front of her.
“You know, if I was a younger man, I’d love to be reliving those days, but now, now I just think about how Penguin and Simon & Schuster passed my book over. Ungrateful bastards. When they passed on me, I still had the strength to try for a few other book deals, but they all laughed at me, too, and soon, I just gave up and said, ‘The hell with ‘em.’ These things happen, I guess, but I was never used to that with all of the respect I earned from my time in the Army and from the government organization that I worked for. Now those were some great men and women.”
“Which organization did you work?”
“We didn’t have a name. The closest thing we had to a name was a letter and number. Do you believe that?”
“I believe you,” Susan said, touching his aged and frail hand.
“You say you do, but when you look at the truth inside my collection,” he said, gesturing toward the boxes, “You’ll have your doubts, too. Until then, I’ll let you humor this old boy a little.”
“I’m sure they were just stodgy old jerks who couldn’t bring themselves to understand things that aren’t everyday love stories and action movies. Maybe you should have had scantily clad models on the cover of your book,” she said smiling.
He laughed at that, and he spoke again, saying, “The best remark was that ‘it would be better as a fictional comic book or superhero movie,’ at least that’s what Random House told me. To go about with stuff like this as non-fiction was ‘commercial suicide’ at best. Even then, it would be a hard sell without real superhero powers, just psychic abilities and paranormal relics combined with some Old West, overly macho types.”
“I’m sorry for what they did to you, but why me? Why now?”
“You’re my last solid connection to the days of my past. I checked out other people from that time’s kids, too. You have an education background, and you can write. The others are good for different things, but they can’t write. They’re also too serious. You’re open-minded, but you aren’t so much so that your brains will fall out.”
“So that’s my outstanding credentials?”
“That and your lineage… well, your honorable soul, mostly. You’re a woman of the truth. You’ll respect my work that I did prior to this. When I die, you can publish it with my name, but not while I’m alive. There’s too much ‘beyond top secret’ information,” he said laughing. “I’d rather not be grilled about divulging some of these things. Like they could put a man my age in the slammer! That said, there are some really good people who need to be known about, and Missy, I think you can do just that.”
“Are you sure this is something you want to do?”
“Because what was out there then is going to come back someday really soon. Evil always does, and when it happens, people need to be ready. At least, I hope they are this time. Preparation is everything. Nobody who could have done anything at the time was really ready, and for that, things happened. Bad things. Time allows us to conveniently forget the past, but for those of us who were there, we know that we’ll never forget. That means you need to learn and remember what I already know.”
“My mom alluded to how I had a lot of learning to do.”
“Your mother and Blackrock Canyon became even more inseparable than her relationship with her brother. God rest his soul.”
“Yeah,” she said trailing off. “Well, I thank you for entrusting me with all of this. I never knew there was so much,” she said pointing to the boxes and briefcase full of papers, photographs, hard drives, and sticky notes.
“Don’t let its appearance fool you. It’s in order.”
“I’m sure it is, sir.”
“I haven’t been a sir in ages. No reason to start now.”
They both laughed at that.
“So what do you think of him?”
“I think he’s on the level. When things like this fall into a person’s lap, it becomes time to run with the opportunity to be great. There’s no other choice. Like he said in a letter he wrote me, I need to do what I need to do.”
“So you write, and I research?”
“For the most part. I figure I’ll be doing a lot of transcribing and reorganizing what’s there. Even with teaching, we can get this going along solidly over the next two summers. We can run through samples next summer, and we can see about publishing when we have a good chunk o’ stuff put together. Marsha, who teaches fifth grade at school has an in with Rotterdam Publishing in New York City.”
“Then, let’s get on this right after vacation.”
And with that, the two of them drove off toward the Grand Canyon, which was where their vacation would end and their lives would radically change.
Exactly how much their lives would change, neither of them could begin to understand in that moment, but as they sat as comfortably as they could in their tiny airplane seats, they flipped through the first of the journals that Powell had given them. From what they saw, it was clear that the old man had given them more than he even alluded to in the conversations prior to and during their vacation.
And considering the long-winded conversations he had about all of those dark and scary moments that his team faced down, that fear that these histories inspired really was something to behold.
Upon returning home, Susan immediately placed a phone call to thank the old man, but when she did, she was told by a nurse that he had passed during the night, not long after they left.
“I guess we got there just in time,” she said, trying to fight off tears for a man that she had barely had time to get to know.
“Yeah, I guess we did,” Jim added, wondering to himself if there was something in Powell’s pressing need to see Susan so quickly, and then he just shook it off as coincidence.
“Well, no time like the present to keep reading and researching.”