From Roswell to Marathon TX is a hard five hour drive over a creosote and gravel high plain desert past mesas and Yucca and Joshua trees and an occaisional Hermosillo. It’s late morning when we get to Atherton’s dome and the night rain has vanished with the ghosts of dawn.
Since Atherton died long ago i didnt know if the geodesic house would even still be here or if it would have long ago been trashed by looters and vandals and rain and sand and wind. The march of armies and the march of sands in the desert are but one. But, there it is, apparently intact.
We sit here in pregnant silence for a minute after i shut off the engine, butt sore from car seats but stuck in the inertia of this penultimate moment between desire and consummation. I’ve been expecting attack dogs and screaming anchoritic Luddites brandishing automatic weapons but there’s no sign of human life at all.
Oak and Elder grow clumped here on the flat in front of the house. A windmill spins like a chinese toy and dogs bark in the distance. In the dry steep light the raw umber hills in back of the house stand deeply shadowed in their folds and in the cobalt sky buzzards wheel in a crepe carousel.
We walk like gimps from the jeep, cold and tight from the drive. Liz stumbles and nearly falls but i catch her and set her steady on her feet. I look at her face but her expression is opaque.
It’s just like you drew it, Michael, Izzie sighs as we reach the door.
Told you it was real, Michael says.
The house is covered by a silver tarp stretched over a wood frame and the whole structure seems remarkably intact but it has not completely escaped entropy’s scythe. Chaparral has grown up around the house that was not in the photograph and some strange vine has insinuated itself between the tarp and the wood frame and there is dry rot in places.
As we pause here in front of the door i get a chill. The tarp rattles in the wind and the sound of that unnerves me. From over the mountains comes the screech of a predatory bird. Something creeps me out about this place, or maybe it’s in my head.
I stare at the door and say, Does this place seem unnecessarily eldritch to any of you?
Eldritch? Michael says.
He means creepy, you ignoramus, Izzie says.
Michael shrugs. He says, No, just a fucked up old house with answers inside.
Maybe it’s not the house, i think to myself. Maybe it’s because i sense we are still being followed by parties unknown. I tried to conceal the jeep from sight of anybody passing on the road but wish i’d hidden it better. But i’m not going back and wasting time trying to make it harder to see. Not when we’re this close.
Alright Michael, i say. Try the key.
Michael inserts the key into the lock. It fits but will not turn. He jiggles the key but it doesnt help and when i see him getting frustrated i say, Stop, Michael. Dont break the key off in the lock.
I pass my hand over the lock and open it the alien way. We’ve come this far, i say. That key probably unlocks something inside the house. Take the key out of the lock. Do not lose it.
As i walk inside i know that one reason this place that might’ve bothered me was that from the outside it resembled a UFO. I guess that was Atherton’s intention. The geometric arrangement of the windows gives the same impression from the inside but Michael’s right. It’s just a fucked up old house that may have something priceless hidden inside.
An overturned armchair that’s been gnawed by mice. I look up, expecting to see bats hanging from the rafters but there arent any. With the dappled light from the skylight and the unfinished walls it looks like the inside of an old barn. There is more furniture thrown around by someone looking frantically for something or just thrown by somebody in a drunken rage. Or maybe Atherton was a sloppy housekeeper.
Izzie looks inside a box full of papers but doesnt seem to find anything useful.
Somebody was definitely looking for something here, Liz says.
Whatever it was they probably found it long ago or gave up looking, i say.
Izzie says to Michael, Try holding the key again.
Michael holds the key in his fist and concentrates. Nothing, he says, shaking his head.
Maria walks over to him and touches him lightly on the sleeve. Try again, she says.
This time Michael jumps. There’s something here, he gasps. A room.
Where? I say.
IDK, Max. It’s hidden somehow.
Michael seems to know something about where to look. He walks to a wall where stones have been fashioned to fit into niches in the walls to form a decorative shape. He pulls the stones out until he sees a lock camouflaged in the wall.
Max, Isabel, he says.
The key, Michael, Izzie says.
Michael inserts the key and it turns easily. A hidden door into what looks like a basement slides open. We walk down the steps in near dark. At the bottom is an old kerosene lantern. Izzie ignites it and in the stingy light we can see boxes full of papers. Old photos hang pinned to a darkroom clothesline that all look like UFO pictures.
Jackpot, Michael says.
And then upstairs we hear slow, deliberate footsteps. I was right. We have been followed. The footsteps get louder until they are almost directly overhead.
Oh, Holy Shit, Liz whispers.
There is a loud smack like a face being slapped and then a heavy thud like someone hitting the floor.