Fred Stein gets a text

As he stood upon the heel of a frost-bitten meadow, gazing out for a stolen moment at the tawny sunrise, Fred Stein took a labored breath and stopped what he was doing. This was a microcosm of his state, he thought—a state of mind within a state of being—in which he’d stolen a protracted moment of life and had stopped what he was doing.

The cabin near Bighorn Canyon, about a hundred miles south of Billings, Montana, belonged to the family. Fred’s father, Frank, had built this place decades earlier after inheriting the plot of land from his father, who’d once owned a horse ranch. By now, Frank was aged and too frail for the austere outdoor life, and despite the recent upgrades, including solar panels and thick double glaze on the windows, the quaint yet sturdy domicile required a tough outer skin, but also much more. The cabin was a fair distance from any highway and therefore any hospital should Frank, now 84, have what he reticently call a problem. Go ahead and use it, he’d said a year or so ago with a tired wave of his hand. Not exactly a gift, or a hand-me-down. More like how he reacted to Fred when his son was sharing something personal that excited him that he—Frank—didn’t understand. “Huh, not for me”, he’d say with a stolid look. Frank understood being available for his son in, shall we say, other ways.

Of course, the cabin in Bighorn was all about not being available. It was the point, the raison d’etre, Fred thought, employing a phrase his father would never use. His eyes turned back to the sight of his axe which was currently sunk into a piece of softwood conifer, cut from a nearby forest a month or so earlier. Fred had enough wood for several days, perhaps weeks, and knew that the stacks that he had were sufficiently dry for optimal burning. But in the pause was the question of how long he would stay in this incognito retreat—how long before he would head back to civilization, or else wait for it to find him. Fred’s wife, Anne, would have known, or at least guessed, that he was out here. She’d visited the place only once and hadn’t liked it, or hadn’t liked its location. The middle of nowhere, she once scoffed, not getting the raison d’etre—a phrase she wouldn’t have used either. Something to think about, Fred next thought as he swung down his axe, burying its tip into a soft wooden neck. Too soft, he murmured, flashing upon Anne’s visage again.

Something to think about? Something to trip on, he nuanced, thinking of the psylocibin stems that he’d brought along. They were currently nestled in his backpack, inside the cabin and warm, inviting him. After breakfast, Fred decided, about the impending trip. He now preferred doing this alone, though he’d shared doses with friends, mostly business partners, on a few occasions. Unfortunately, Fred’s partners, though habitually calm and cool in their office personas, were invariably neurotic under the influence. Their slavish adherence to rules, “control” issues would come to the surface, causing niggly disruptions, failures of flow. Not for me, declared Jared, Fred’s best friend, after a trip dominated by nausea and what he called “spinning”. Fred kept telling him to relax, and as that advice failed, he became less relaxed himself; distracted by irritation. That desire to control things or else get away reared itself, torn from memory of playground disappointments: the games that peers wouldn’t get and therefore wouldn’t play for long.  

It was ironic that Fred worked, or did work he now pondered, for a notable cell phone provider. In the surrounding area, there was little in the way of service. Even his company, which serviced his own plan of course, provided little in the north Wyoming, south Montana region. And it was a message from them, at his last stop in Lovell, just south of the state border, that served as his last contact. His last bill had been paid, apparently. Thanks, they were saying. Fred chuckled, felt a dark whim of good customer feeling, of employee compliance; of good 21st century citizenry. Would anyone else know he was here and try to reach him, and maybe succeed? That stop in Lovell was his last stop on the grid. With enough provisions for a month, an SUV last clocked in Colorado, a demented parent as an only witness to his potential whereabouts, he figured he was clear for a spell. Or was that all a naïve delusion? It was out here that his grandfather had once disappeared, Fred recalled—something his father had shared, the family folklore. Just drifted off on a horse, never to be seen again—that was Bill Stein. Horses didn’t have license plates, could never be tracked back in the day. These days, phones come and go, get lost, stolen. Yet you need them for everything, and they can betray you. Do they locate you, Fred later asked himself? All this wandering thought was much later, during his shroom interlude. He’d paid his bill, hadn’t he? They got no reason to come after him. What do they care about what he does to family or friends, or what they ever did to him?

On a creaking porch that was the next feature due an upgrade, Fred reclined on a rawhide covered chair and took out a cigarette. Through a thin plume of smoke, he next gazed out towards the opposite side of the meadow. Above rolling hills in the distance, pale blue had taken over from tawny sunrise, signifying mid-morning, and from a peaking sun a warm glow was softening the frosty air and would-be tundra. Stillness. Fred had long delighted in stillness, especially after bouts of unpleasantry that he could barely think about. Here the land was still, and so was the air, and the high, cloudless sky and light of the day was stirring imagination of long days within an Arctic summer. Amid dense patches of forest there were tiny hints of movement, from dashing rodents to darting birds, but nothing sizable like a family of deer or conceivably invasive, like an Elk. And nothing human, best of all. This land is your land, he murmured through hallucinogenic stupor. The cigarette was burning down, poised to sting his finger, and as Fred caught a glance of dancing blue and red colors, smoke drifted before his eyes, forming a screen. Silence was broken by the buzz of his phone from within his pocket: an alert that a new text was coming in, mocking nature, entrapping humanity. Those blue and red colors were coming closer now, approaching upon a snaky trail that would lead to Fred’s front door. Next, they paired off, forming an attack maneuver, like fireflies dispatched to hit the flanks of a target. Getting closer, the red and blue colored bubbles got bigger and bigger, but finally dissolved in a blur of dust inflected with cut grass. From the resulting haze, a phalanx of men in uniform stepped forward wearing grim faces under crisp, tidy Stetsons. They had come for the son of Frank Stein.

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