The ice house raised out of the blank desert canvas like a wart, larger and uglier than everything around it, a boil on the finger of God. Miles and miles of pockmarked beige sand extended in either direction, sporadically dotted with mobile homes and cars raised up on blocks, a bleak canvas.
Ursula stopped her car and pulled into the gravel parking lot.
Inside, her sandals slapped loudly on a concrete floor. She approached the bar, a wooden top wrapped in aluminum siding, flanked by well-worn barstools. On the other side of the square room, a fireplace blazed and patrons lounged languidly on sofas in a Silver Bullet haze, listening to some old crooner speak soft words into a microphone. He wore a leather hat and jacket with fringe along the sleeves, patches of soft brown leather showed where the fringe had fallen off, leaving an asymmetrical affectation in its wake as the man let his arms rise and fall.
The bartender raised her head, she wore some sort of bondage vest across her chest with a hoodie over it that made her look like a knockoff Mad Max extra. Her meticulously applied eyeliner curved upwards, toward Heaven.
Ursula ordered a cider.
On the stool to her right, a Blue Heeler sat obediently and intentionally looking straight ahead, on her left was a grizzled old man, the sun and the years had taken a toll on him, his white hair stood out at sporadic angles and Ursula thought she heard him mumble to himself.
Her cider arrived.
“It’s pretty strong,” the bartender warned.
Ursula nodded, she’d been driving for hours since leaving the funeral. She needed a nap, maybe a good cry in the bathroom, but a strong drink would suffice for now.
She threw the drink back like someone would take a draught of unpleasant medicine. The room tilted a little, the music got louder, she asked for another. The bartender didn’t offer a warning this time, just slapped the glass down, sloshing cider onto the bar. Ursula watched the amber liquid sink into a thick paper coaster with a picture of a laughing pig on it.
The bartender pulled up her black hoodie and went outside with a pack of cigarettes to stare at all the nothingness. Ursula ran her finger gently around the soft edge of the bar, wondered how many hands had worn down the wood before her own.
“Aliens landed here,” a voice interjected, “Back in the 60’s.”
She turned quickly, in search of the voice’s source, almost falling off her barstool. The speaker had a deep, gritty affection she thought certainly didn’t belong to the old man hiccupping his sadness into an empty glass.
“Venutians, to be more specific. They landed in the middle of the California desert and gave a man, of course it was a man, the secret to humanity’s longevity.”
Ursula looked around again, her eyes finally landing on the steely gaze of the dog.
“Are you talking to me?” she asked, laughing a little to diffuse her nerves.
Ursula blinked again, his placid dog face didn’t change. Maybe it was a bar room joke, maybe someone was throwing their voice and they were all laughing at her.
“They concealed the knowledge within Tesla coils, wooden domes, and copper wire.”
No one was laughing. “Built a white cupola offset by palm trees across the intersection of several geomagnetic lines, hidden under the earth. When you’re inside, you hear nothing, and everything.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Rejuvenation, time travel. They couldn’t believe how short the human life was, how impossibly insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. How are we meant to access the knowledge of the universe, when we can’t live long enough to become truly wise?”
Ursula didn’t answer.
“Howard Hughes helped build the device, they used Spruce Goose wood.”
“Spruce Goose wood!” the old man to her right suddenly shouted.
“Can you hear him too?” Ursula urgently asked the old man.
In response, he collapsed, face down, onto the bar. “The aliens, they’ll return,” he muttered, before passing out cold, the hairs of his white beard mingling with leftover potato chip crumbs.
The bartender returned smelling of cigarettes and hand sanitizer, music continued in the background, a couple sat entwined on a ratty sofa by the fire reflecting it’s orange blaze ominously across the stage.
“Do you want another?” the bartender asked.
“No, no thank you.”
She looked over again at the dog, he was facing forward now, panting happily at the bartender. A man, resembling a sun-worn Eddie Vedder, his forearms covered in layers of woven leather bracelets and faded tattoos, approached to pet the dog on the head.
“Can I have the pilsner?” he asked the bartender, then, turning to Ursula, inquired, “You alright? If you’re scared of dogs I can get him down, just everyone seems to think it’s funny that he likes to sit at the bar. Like he’s people. Ain’t that right Sonny?”
The dog slobbered a little, his eyes now gooey and docile.
“No, he’s fine. I just… I think I need to go.” Ursula stumbled in her clumsy attempt at escape..
“You alright to drive?”
“Yeah, sure.” She slapped cash down and wandered back out into the dry desert night where stars winked overhead.
Outside, a band of shadows had gathered, impossibly dark and intangible at once, a dense group of collective memory.
One of them asked her, in the same gritty voice as before, “Do you want to live forever?”
By then, she knew the correct answer was yes.
Abigail Stewart is a fiction writer from Berkeley, California. Her work is published in Maudlin House, Taco Bell Quarterly, Xray Lit Mag, Mookychick, and elsewhere. She is a contributing writer for Pussy Magic. Her website is here: www.helloabigailstewart.com