I can’t fucking believe him. Goddamn Jake. Goddammit Jake! He told that guy. About Ostium. Everything. What the fuck? Then he told him where the hell it is. And he fucking found it. He even talked about how there’s fucking music written to his recordings now, and even goddamn merchandise. Un-fucking-believable. Fortunately. Because of the whole untethering thing, it’s a different Ostium. Somehow. Don’t really get that. Least not now. Not at the moment. But it works in this case. For now.
I just . . . I just don’t get what possessed his tiny little mind . . . okay Monica, let’s keep it together here. Let’s get something out of this. Make some fucking catharsis happen. I need it after today.
Okay, so . . . Dear Diary, I’m talking to you and recording because I need a . . . saner voice to talk to and listen to. So Jake’s probably gonna spin it as something we discussed and came to a consensus on, but I pretty much just told his ass how it’s gonna be. What with Ostium being somehow linked with Jake. Which I still totally don’t get. But every door we go through, there’s just more proof. It can’t be denied. So from now on, I said, Jake can do what the fuck he wants with his recordings going over our daily trips through the doors. It’s all tied to him, and he’s the one who always seems to know way too much about what’s going on. While little old me is left in the dark.
I don’t know everything. Not at all. But I know some things. Some very important things.
So I told Jake he can just go ahead and do his thing. We don’t need to take turns like he suggested, even though it was kinda nice of him to offer. He can use his big fancy vocab and go wild. I said I wouldn’t be doing any recordings.
And here I am doing a recording. But that’s cos I gotta reason. That catharsis thing. In Ostium I’ve only got one other guy to talk to and I can’t really trust him anymore. Not with what I know. But I still gotta bounce ideas off of someone or something. Somehow. So I’ll do these recordings when Jake’s not around, or sleeping, like he is now.
I need to do these recordings because I can’t lose my shit. Not over Jake. And not in front of Jake. Because he’s the fucking key to all of this. It’s why I made up that whole recording originally.
I . . . I need to show I’m together in front of him. Because without him I can’t get through those doors. Not on my own. And I need to. I need to.
To find Steve.
I know he’s alive.
I know he’s still out there. Somewhere. On the other side of one of those doors. I heard him. His voice. He said my name. He knows I’m here, looking for him. So he knows he’s gotta do whatever he needs to, to keep going. To stay alive. So I can find him. And get him back. I know I can do it. And I know he knows I can do it.
I gotta believe in myself. Another reason I need these recordings. For me. Jake’s never gonna hear them. No one else is. Well . . . Maybe Steve. One day. When I eventually find him. I might let him hear what I went through. How I never gave up.
It’s important . . . For me . . . To . . .
What is that?
Is that Jake?
Is he still asleep?
I think he’s having a nightmare.
Guess I better go rescue his ass yet again.
So he still thinks I’m on his side.
~ ~ ~
No . . . No, no, no . . . Please stop . . .
I open my eyes and immediately feel Monica’s hands on my shoulders. She’s shaking me. Normally having Monica be this close, touching me, would make my day, but these aren’t normal times. She explains I was having a nightmare. Crying out in my sleep, like some little kid. She doesn’t say this, she’s not that cruel, but my brain is automatically completing the sentence, filling in my inadequacies.
It makes me feel . . . Less than awesome.
I let her know I appreciate the attention and help, looking directly into her eyes.
I haven’t forgotten that kiss and won’t be anytime soon.
She goes into the kitchen to make some tea and prepare some breakfast, telling me from afar that I’d been mumbling about tsunamis and Ebola . . . Seeing those clones and what was on those screens has done a number on me. It’s done a number on her too. She’s actually surprised it’s not me waking her up in the middle of a nightmare. It makes me smile, but inside I know this is just something said to placate my nerves. And it’s working. A little bit. But those weren’t clones of Monica. I was the intended viewer of those screens. I was the focus of that whole door . . . That Ostium had created . . . For me.
~ ~ ~
After a wholesome breakfast, we’re in the map room, staring at that wood-work of art. I still can’t really believe there was a crack in it just yesterday right down the middle as if someone had taken a giant, serrated ax to it a few times, and now it’s miraculously . . . Repaired. Healed.
Like a wound. A wound that won’t hurt anymore.
I guess in time we will see.
But getting back to the map table. It’s different . . . Again.
As we noticed before, the numbers have changed. It’s . . . Even more random now, if that’s possible. The lowest number is 12. The highest is . . . What the fuck? 401? It just doesn’t make any sense. And from the look on Monica’s face, she’s of the same sentiment.
Not that it really did before, but we were on a roll, sort of. A numerical roll, if you will, until the whole earthquake thing, and then the infinity symbol.
And now it gives a whole new meaning to the term . . . random.
So what the hell are we going to do now? I ask Monica this question, but her looks are continuing to mirror mine and it would just be redundant. Or she’d make a snide comment . . . That would make me laugh.
Okay. Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda.
What the hell were we going to do now?
That’s what I tell Monica. And the look she gives me is something to the effect of: What the fuck did you just tell me to do?
I immediately apologize, and follow it up with: “Please. I have an idea.”
That’s enough to convince us and we’re on our way.
~ ~ ~
Outside the clock tower, it’s another beautiful sunny day in the quaint town of Ostium. Well, at least to the extent of a town that’s untethered and aimlessly drifting through space and time. So darkness all around pretty much. And it’s then that I realize the conundrum . . . Or is that the new paradox of Ostium? There’s no big shining ball in the sky to give Ostium light; nor is there some lunar orb having sunlight reflecting off of it and casting a cold whiteness over everything. But somehow there’s still light in Ostium. Somehow. There are no streetlights or anything of that sort. And yet I’m standing outside and it’s bright and clear as day, and I can still see the blackness out there.
But that’s not helping me focus, which is what I need right now.
I ask Monica to bear with me.
I close my eyes and put fingers on my temples, applying a little pressure.
Yep, part of me goes way back when to that Starbucks parking lot when I was first trying to to find Ostium. It was sense, that strange ability that suddenly possessed me, which I’m attempting to channel now. I’ve already tried the mental infrared Ostium map, but no numbers, no doors are lighting up, telling me where to go. I’m on my own. But then Ostium never liked making things easy, did it?
And there it is. A slight mental tugging. Like someone has just flicked my pineal gland.
Okay, granted, that’s a little weird, but you get the idea.
Like before, I open my eyes and see a building before me with a door, and that door is the number 24, but it’s not our next door.
I start walking down a street and Monica follows. She can tell the quasi-trance state I’m in. She probably doesn’t understand it, just like I don’t, but she’s going along with it.
~ ~ ~
A quick tangent here. You may have noticed me pretty much doing this recording solo, telling you what Monica said rather than actually hearing her. Monica and I talked about it and we decided that I’d be doing the recordings from now on due to my mysterious and – GULP – undeniable connection to Ostium. I’m starting to feel like there’s this invisible umbilical between me and this town. Whether it’s attached to my belly button or head or heart, I don’t know.
But long, winding, directionless story short, I’m going to be the lead and main and pretty much only reporter on the Ostium scene. Monica wants to take a step back, remove herself from the recordings. She feels she has little to offer, which I disagree with, but I’ll respect her wishes.
I think she might just need some space. This is her way of creating some distance between herself and Ostium and possibly me too. Maybe she’ll do her own private recordings as a sort of ongoing diary thing, I don’t know. She said she’s not going to, but doing this might also help me, or us, to understand what is going on with Ostium and why I am particularly connected with it. Since it’s just me running the show now, so to speak.
Basically, Jake’s special, he doesn’t know why, and maybe having Jake being the main reporter, recorder, and chronicler will help solve this. Somehow.
I don’t know. We’ll see.
Now, on with our regularly televised episode of the Ostium show . . .
~ ~ ~
The door I stop at on one of the streets of Ostium is number 45. Nothing apparently significant about this door and this number, except that my Ostium sense is telling me that this is where the next part of our journey through the doors of Ostium begins.
I tell Monica this. She nods.
I then say “Ladies first.”
“No fucking way.”
I laugh, turn the handle and push open the door and step into darkness. Like always.
~ ~ ~
It stays dark for a while and just when I start to wonder if I’ve gone blind, light starts to filter in, as my eyes acclimate to . . . The enclosed space. We’re surrounded by rock. On all sides it seems.
I turn around slowly to find Monica doing the same thing and we both see the source of the light at the same time. We’re in a long cave made of rock.
Monica starts heading toward the light and I follow, wondering if we’re going to find some version of an afterlife on the other side . . .
Well, if this is the afterlife, then sign me up. It’s a big beautiful landscape. Trees and rock formations and grassland and a giant open blue sky with a big shining sun casting a comforting heat. It feels . . . Glorious. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the sun until I saw it again. My brain starts considering if I’m going to be getting my recommended daily dose of vitamin D via solar exposure in Ostium now that it lacks a star, but I ignore it. It’s a very minor concern at this point. Thanks once again, brain.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous here. Paradise.”
I’m in total agreement, but I follow up with how this isn’t what we’re here for. As beautiful as it all is, I can sense where the artifact for this door is located and it’s not anywhere outside. It’s back in the cave I tell her.
She’s not too happy. I’m not either. I’d much rather soak up the sun and enjoy the outside, but Ostium has other ideas. She asks about the blackness, I tell her I’m keeping it at bay. For the moment.
I lead the the way back into the cave, and we’ve soon passed the open door leading back to Ostium. On this side the door is more like a fake piece of rock that has detached and swung open from the wall. No visible hinges or attachments, just kind of hanging there, open. It’s pretty cool.
As we continue into the cave, the light dims a little, but not too much, so we can still see just fine. That initial darkness was more about our eyes getting using to this lower-light environment.
I look around, searching for any items, any artifacts, trying to get a sense of what this place is. Why we’re here. And what significance it has with me. I’m coming through this door and into this place with a whole new paradigm this time, if you will. I know it’s going to have something to do with Ostium and with me. I know there’s going to be a connection, and it changes my whole approach.
It’s kind of like when archaeologists and paleontologists and anthropologists are doing their thing. Digging up old bones and whatnot. Of course, if you’re digging up a bone, chances are it’s pretty old, unless it’s something your dog buried a few hours ago . . . But anyway! When scientists start digging in the ground, everything’s striated, meaning it’s all about layers and the deeper you dig the older stuff gets, so at certain levels, archaeologists expect to find fossils and artifacts from a specific period or a range of time. Where was I going with this . . . Oh yeah, but a year or two ago, scientists tried a whole new approach when starting a dig, basically being more open-minded to what they were looking for. So instead of thinking they were going to find, say, fossils of homo erectus and only that, they were looking for anything that might have something to do with fossils, and in so doing, discovered more artifacts and bits of fossils and pieces of whatever they wouldn’t have necessarily noticed if their focus had just been on finding homo erectus bones. I’m sure there’s some mathematical statistics and probability that can be used and applied to reveal how you’re going to find more useful stuff (even if it’s not the useful stuff you were originally planning to find) if you apply this method.
Bringing this very long off-topic monologue back to Ostium. Sorry, didn’t mean to go on for that long, but there is a point. Trust me. So just as these scientists applied a new paradigm to their archaeological dig, I’m applying a new approach to going through a door in Ostium and its inevitable connection to me. And now that I’ve talked for way too long about archeology and bones I’m thinking there’s a significance to my brain dredging it up and being in this place. Excavating the resonance, if you will. This is a cave after all, and what do you sometimes find in caves?
Yep, now that I’m thinking about it, this definitely has a fossil feel to
it . . .
Oh come on, I haven’t made with the wise cracks in . . . At least five minutes.
And that’s when I see the first skull.
~ ~ ~
It like it’s staring right at me. I guess technically it is. And if it still had eyes and muscles and skin and a face, the person would probably be looking at me and have some sort of reaction. But it’s bone white – obviously – and long dead.
I hold out my arm to stop Monica and she soon sees what my gaze is fixed upon.
The cave tunnel has opened up into a sort of alcove. It’s hard to see anything, but I just get the sense of more space now. Our breathing is more . . . echoey.
The skull appears to be sitting on some sort of pedestal. It’s seems big, almost abnormally large. I think Neanderthal, but it seems almost bigger than that, also I’m not exactly able to recognize a Neanderthal skull as soon as I see one. Below it looks to be a dark hole.
Monica shoots me a What the fuck? look in a way that only Monica can. I shrug my shoulders. I don’t know exactly what it is and what the deal is with this setup.
And then in the far back of my mind I feel a twinge of something. Just like I felt when I was on Roanoke . . . and the Mary Celeste . . . And this time I’m not gonna ignore it. Something is pinging with me. I’ve picked up on something and it’s connected with a memory of mine in some way. So what is it? What’s special about this place?
There’s not a lot of light in here, so I take out my phone and turn on the flashlight.
“Good idea,” Monica says, quickly doing the same with her phone and soon this end of the cave is basked in an impressive amount of light.
Monica just covers her mouth.
The skull in front of us wasn’t the only one. There are rows of them along the walls. Each with their own intricately carved pedestal. The skulls are all different too, minute variations in shape and size, but all clearly human. All of a sudden it feels like a crowded room.
A crowded room of the dead.
And I know what this place is. Where we are.
Monica recognizes the look on my face: understanding.
“Fucking enlighten me, Mr. Fisher.”
And I tell her that we are in the cave of a skull cult. The cave was discovered five years ago in South Africa, about three hours northwest of Johannesburg by prospectors looking for potential places to mine raw materials. They started digging and then found this opening to a long cave. It was pretty much all filled in, so they notified the authorities who notified a bunch of different people. Less than a year later an archeology group from Germany arrived and began excavating.
The first six months were spent getting rid of dirt and sand and rock to clear out the cave. Some of it was attributed to the passage of time with weather, rock slides, animals, but not all of it. The archaeologists worked out for that amount of material to be inside the cave, at some point someone, or more than likely, a significant group of someones, chose to fill it in and hide the cave from the rest of the world. And this was before they found any bones; before they got to the skulls.
After a year, they made it to the alcove that they eventually dubbed the anteroom – “And you’ll find out why when I get to that part” – That’s when they found the first skull. Then the next one. And the next one. And they kept going. Eventually the anteroom was completely excavated and they found . . . 45 of them.
“You’re shitting me.”
“No. I shit you not.”
There are 22 skulls on each wall. Each skull bears a unique identifying mark: a perfect hole about the size of a quarter carved into the top of the skull. Perfectly round. The skulls were eventually dated to between 28,000 and 30,000 years old. They don’t know how those holes were drilled into the skulls and made to look so perfect. As for the layout of the skulls, there are four rows on each side: the top two rows with five skulls; the bottom two rows with six skulls done in a sort of wide pyramidal shape.
“Number 45 is . . .”
“The one sitting above that hole.
“Where does the hole lead?”
“Let me tell you the rest of the story.”
The hole . . . isn’t very big, which is pretty clear. The hole obviously leads somewhere, but it took a while first for the archaeologists to decide what they were going to do, and then to get volunteers who were small enough to crawl through the hole. They sent out this hilarious request for grad students with a specific height restriction and what would be required. They had a bunch of applications, and then about two thirds dropped out once they talked with the archaeologists and what they were going to do. A group of 15 grad students made it to the dig. Once they saw the hole, ten of them refused to go and headed back to Johannesburg.
What it must’ve been like for those five people, to venture into the unknown and enclosed like that. Talk about your Indiana Jones adventure.
The hole is actually a small tunnel that leads for over 30 feet. It took two years of digging and excavating, but eventually they made it to the other side. It led to a small room. Just five feet high. You couldn’t stand up in it, but had to crawl. Another year of painstaking excavation. Grad students left, others came from all over the world. Eventually they had the room clear. There was a stone pedestal in the center of the tiny room with strange cuts and hatchings that might’ve be some primitive language or writing or pictography. No one really knows. No one’s ever seen anything like this.
On the pedestal there was a single skull.
It was twice the size of a normal skull.
And it was human.
~ ~ ~
They had no clue what the hell it was.
At some point in your life – whether you wanted to or not – you’ve probably seen a horse’s skull or a cow’s skull, especially when you went through that hipster phase and wanted to do some interior decorating. That’s about the size of this skull, but it had all the expected features of the homo genus.
No one of course believed it at first. Who would? There was just the handful of grad students squeezing through that very small tunnel. They took photos, which were astounding and still disbelieved. More photos were taken. Eventually a camera was set up, as well as lighting for absolute proof. Bone samples were taken and tested. It matched the rest of the skulls. It was human.
And on the top of it was another perfectly carved hole.
More time passed. The bones, the cave, the dig was scrutinized and studied by many, but nothing equatable had even been found. The reason the Rosetta Stone is so important is because it has the same message in three languages; it’s like a three-language dictionary. This cave and its skulls were unique. They are unique.
The carved holes are also unique, and mysterious. What do they mean? At the very least, they seem to imply some sort of ritualistic intent. And thus the dig and its skull inhabitants have been dubbed the skull cult. Not officially. More colloquially. But it caught on. Sort of. With those in the science who believed. There were plenty of naysayers, who called it an aberration, an outlier; something they really didn’t want to become a big deal, because it didn’t really cast the well-respected and longstanding field of archeology in a favorable light. That’s why it’s not so widely known.
But I know about it. Because I have . . . an interest in it and all things anthropological and archaeological. Well, not all things, but many things. I know more than most about Australopithecines, Denisovans, Naledi, and a number of other hominids.
You know, just one of my hobbies . . . that became an obsession. As it does.
~ ~ ~
The look on Monica’s face is not one I expected, but once I consider it, it makes sense.
I came through this door more open-minded about Ostium than I’ve ever been before, more willing to accept my connection to it, and it helped. I didn’t tell Monica anything about this but perhaps she’s just picked up on it in some way, maybe from my body language, or my facial expressions. Either way she’s not shocked – well, she was when I told her about the giant skull; really shocked in fact, but that’s to be expected: that I’m able to give her a ten-minute lecture on this place.
She’s . . . accepting. As am I. This is a good thing. I think it’s a move in a healthy direction for Ostium. And for me. And for Monica.
“And because Ostium’s a bitch, the artifact is through that tiny hole that you can just barely fit through. Right?”
I don’t bother answering. She knows. I just give her one of my award-winning shit-eating grins.
I don’t actually know if I can fit through it, and my heart’s started doing a little dance as I prepare myself to climb through. I don’t remember exactly what the height requirements were for the grad students to be able to climb through the tunnel, but I’m pretty sure I’m too big.
But a part of me also knows this isn’t really a special archaeological site from who knows when about a skull cult. It’s something Ostium made.
It’s something Ostium made . . . For me.
When I start crawling in to the narrow tunnel, I see it’s going to be a real tight fit, but I also know I can make it. I slowly start inching my way along with Monica giving me encouragement.
It takes a while, but I eventually make it out the other side, like a Nerf bullet from the Nerf barrel of a Nerf gun.
And there’s the skull sitting on that pedestal. I can’t help but think of that scene from Conan the Barbarian, when he finds that skeleton with the sword . . . you know, I’m just gonna stop there. If you’re really curious, you can rent the movie from Blockbuster . . . I mean watch it on Netflix . . . dated myself a little there.
It’s huge and . . . So unnatural looking. Like something from a movie about aliens. It’s downright creepy.
I walk up to it and in the top I can see the perfectly round hole.
Now, because the skull’s twice as big as a normal human skull, the hole is twice as large, but this particular hole still seems too large. Maybe it’s more . . . Ostium sized?
I’m not surprised when I reach out with my hand and am just barely able to fit it into the hole. I reach down and feel for something. I find it. It’s hard. I pull it out and open my hand.
It’s a tiny skull, like something for El Dia de los Muertos, or one of those knickknack key-chain skulls. And of course, in the top of it is a tiny hole.
Does this little skull have an even tinier skull within it?
Does Ostium have an actual sense of humor?
I shake it. There’s something minuscule rattling inside. Make that many somethings, because those skulls go all the way down, baby.
That’s just fucking hilarious.
~ ~ ~
It takes me less time to make it back through the tiny hole. I show Monica the latest addition for the map table. She’s just as amused as I am. When I make it rattle, she bursts out laughing, making me laugh too. It’s been a while since we both did that. Feels good.
We make our way back to the door. She steps through first.
I follow and stop just before passing through. I take a look back at the humble abode of the skull cult.
It’s still really gnarly that we came through the door and ended up here.
And I’ll probably never see it again. Ever. Too bad.
I step through closing the door behind me.
~ ~ ~
Back at the clock tower, standing before the map table, we’re ready. Four of the golden numbers are gone. One is still there, two through five are gone.
I hold the skull in my hand, feeling it warming up. I shake it, hear the rattling, like I’m getting ready to toss a die. I look underneath the skull suddenly and see the number 45. Go figure. Then I place it on the corresponding number.
This time a vibrant blue light engulfs the artifact, just as blinding as the white light was. It’s over in seconds, the afterimages singed on our retinas.
The number 45 is now a rich, ruby red color. Not gold.
The map table has moved on from gold to . . . Technicolor?