Bourbon Penn 32

Heathman Ldg

by Brian Evenson

His final jaunt, just before he dropped off the map entirely, Erlend spent weeks without going home, traveling from town to town, staying at hotel after hotel, taking his sample books and displaying them to whatever merchants he found loaded into his itinerary each day. The company had, in the past, always given him a few days off every week or two, and had also set his schedule so those days would fall at a time when his route brought him close to home. But perhaps either a new person was scheduling him now, or there had been some sort of not-yet diagnosed computer glitch, or the company had changed policies in ways that were not completely legible and that he couldn’t understand. Still, what did it matter? His wife had left him a few months before, and they had never had children, nor pets: he had no one to go home to.

And yet, it did matter. That many days on the road, that many days in a row, and you started to lose track of yourself. Most mornings Erlend woke up unsure what town he was in, disoriented, confused. And whenever he picked up his phone, it seemed like the company’s app told him where he was to go next, not where he was. He was living away from what he thought of as his real life and, in this new false life, was always unsure of where he was at any given moment, always freed to look ahead to the town to come.

• • •

There were strange echoes too, even if these were mostly false. Moments when he would recognize the town name that appeared on the company app, Lancaster for instance, and think he was going back to a place he had already been, only to later that day arrive in a town that wasn’t familiar at all. One part of his mind recognized that of course more than one town could have the same name: there might be a town called Lancaster, for instance, in every state within his territory, not to mention the states outside it. But another, growing part of him was more and more concerned. It didn’t seem right how often he recognized a town name only to arrive there and find it not at all the town he had anticipated. It was as if something had been offered to him, and then, before he could claim it, been yanked away.

• • •

He awoke one morning, late in his jaunt, to a message from the company. Next stop, it read, Lancaster. But he was, he was sure, almost sure, in Lancaster already. He refreshed the app: same thing. Next stop, Lancaster.

All right, then. Lancaster it was. No problem, the rational side of his mind kept insisting: many towns had the same name. It was mere coincidence that he would be in two Lancasters in a row—if that really was the case: was he absolutely sure the town he was in now was called Lancaster? Maybe Lancaster had been the day before, or even the day before that. Days tended to blur more and more for him now, but to acknowledge this did not particularly reassure him.

He checked the time. He’d slept late, had to hustle. He rummaged a stale granola bar out of his bag, ate it while getting dressed, then hurried down to his car.

Did I check out? he wondered from the driver’s seat. He wasn’t sure, but wouldn’t they have stopped him if he hadn’t? They could email him a bill if need be. Before leaving the lot, he entered the coordinates for the hotel in Lancaster: Heathman Lodge. The car map started to chart the path and then froze: the path to reach the hotel was there, but the last dozen miles or so were blank: no road, no indications of houses or infrastructure or landscape: only a blue dot in the middle of nowhere labeled Heathman Ldg. The map’s just not loading, he told himself, and started driving anyway: he was already late. But even after an hour on the road, that last little bit of the map still remained empty and blank: the only thing within it was the blue dot labeled Heathman Ldg.

• • •

He stopped for gas. A trucker’s diner was attached to the gas station and he grabbed a quick lunch there: patty melt, limp fries. When he started the car again, the map image still came up incomplete. He turned the car off, restarted it again. Same result. He entered the coordinates into his phone, but even on that map it was the same: a series of empty quadrants with the blue Heathman Ldg dot floating in the middle.

Glitch, he told himself. Or maybe they simply haven’t mapped it yet. There were those cars that went around with cameras strapped to their roofs, photographing road after road, but maybe they hadn’t gotten to Lancaster yet—this Lancaster anyway. Surely there were places like that, places not quite fully on a digital map yet. But even as he thought this, he realized he didn’t quite believe it.

• • •

He turned off the car and went back into the gas station.

“Something the matter?” the attendant asked.

“Car map’s not working,” Erlend said. “Do you have a paper one?”

“Paper map?” The attendant pursed her lips, shook her head. “No real call for one these days. Where you trying to get to?” And then, when Erlend explained: “Lancaster? Can’t say I know it.”

It was, at least according to his car map, still more than an hour away, so maybe it was plausible, just barely, that the attendant wouldn’t know it. Erlend thanked her and left.

• • •

The road didn’t end exactly, but it didn’t exactly continue either. There, just at the point where the car map became blank, the asphalt abruptly stopped, replaced by a packed dirt road. This can’t be right, he thought. He put the car into park and stared.

A wide dirt road, carefully attended to. It led up a gentle hill covered in tall, shivering grass, then slipped over the top of it.

He got out his phone and opened the company’s app, entered the coordinates again. It took longer than before, but eventually the same map loaded, with the same blankness, the same blue dot, the same words: Heathman Ldg.

He stared a little longer, thinking. After a moment, not knowing what else to do, he put the car into gear and drove.

• • •

It was not a bad road, was nearly as good as the asphalt one. Maybe, he told himself, this was a new town, an intentional community, just developed. That could explain the dirt road. It might explain the problem with the map as well. He climbed the hill and passed over the top of it. On the other side was a gentle slope down and then another hill. Past that was, as it turned out, another downslope, followed by another hill. No sign of habitation, no houses, nothing but this solitary dirt road cutting its way across hill after hill.

Someone at the company must be having a joke at his expense. Either that or something was truly wrong.

He went up and down another hill, then another. He was beginning to feel psychically seasick. Should I turn around? he wondered. But if he turned around, where would he go? This was his assignment. If he wanted to keep his job, was there any other choice but to keep going?

• • •

He was on the verge of stopping and going back when he saw, at the top of the next hill, a green metal sign with white lettering. It was too far away for him to read. He drove toward it, squinting, but it wasn’t until he was nearly there that he realized it read,


Population what? Erlend wondered. No number was listed. The sign looked brand new, as if it hadn’t spent even a full day out in the sun. He slowly passed it, reached the top of the hill and there, on the other side, in the middle of nowhere, he saw Lancaster.

• • •

It was a small town, hard to judge exactly how many people from the ridge. Four hundred, perhaps. Maybe five. There was a gate at the town’s edge, open, that he could drive through, a central street with a few shops, glimpses of several side streets studded with seemingly identical houses, but that was about all. His map still showed that he was in the middle of nothing, but it still led him, inexorably, to the blue dot labeled Heathman Ldg.

Lancaster was strange. It seemed new, for one thing, as if it might have been thrown together quickly, in a day. There were, too, no cars to be seen: his was the only one. And there were no people to be seen, not a one—even when he peered into the shop windows while driving by he saw absolutely nothing but blank, carefully arranged surfaces. No sign of human presence or, even, sign that humans had ever been inside. It was as if he had wandered into a movie set.

The car map informed him he had arrived. He pulled to the curb, switched off the vehicle. There it was, Heathman Lodge, a midblock red brick edifice with an empty fountain stationed before it. He climbed out and took his bag out of the trunk and, making a wide circle around the dry fountain, went inside.

The lobby had a fountain as well, also dry. The walls were paneled in planks of reclaimed and lightly lacquered pine. The front desk consisted of a huge slab of polished knotty pine with a natural edge, resting on two squat and rusty metal pillars.

Nobody was standing behind the desk. Nobody, in fact, was in the lobby at all. Except, that is, for him. There was a bell. He dinged it, waited. When nobody came, he dinged it again. He was preparing to ding it a third time when he noticed, in a metal outbox in one corner of the desk, a key with a label affixed to it. He sidled down the slab for a closer look, and saw that the label had a room number on it, and the name Erlend.

• • •

333 his room number was. Halfway to the devil, he thought absurdly. He took the key, called the elevator. The third was the top floor—the elevator didn’t go any higher. He depressed 3 and waited for the doors to slide closed.

When they opened again, he pushed his way out. The hall was just as empty as the lobby had been, as if except for him the hotel was deserted. He began counting his way to his room.

There was something about the hall, something strange, something he was hearing that he shouldn’t be. Was there a bird loose? And then he realized it was coming from a speaker, that bird noises were being piped in. He had started off in one direction and only when he was standing between 332 and 334 did he realize that all the rooms around him, no matter which side of the hall they were on, were even numbers. He backtracked to the elevator and went the other direction, the bird noises growing, then receding, then growing again. There, at last, it was: 333. He slid the key in and the door clicked open.

It was, in all important respects, an ordinary room. Nothing surprising: a pair of twin beds; a dark pressed wood desk and matching cabinet; a picture of a sunset bought, perhaps, somewhere in bulk and to be found, perhaps, in all the rooms; a bathroom that looked as though it had never been used.

He put his bag on the luggage rack, removed the toiletries from it, balanced them on the edge of the sink. He slid his laptop out of his briefcase, sat at the desk, and tried to connect with the WiFi.

There was a WiFi connection, Heathman Lodge, but to use it he had to enter a code. He looked at the back of the label attached to the key: no instructions, no code. Maybe it was on a slip of paper and I dropped it, he thought, though this seemed doubtful. He looked around the room for something that would list the WiFi code. Nothing. He opened the desk and cabinet drawers, but they were empty.

He picked up the phone, dialed. It rang three times, then was picked up.

“Hello?” he said. “Can I get the wireless code?” And when nobody responded, “Hello? Hello?”

The line went dead. Had there ever been anybody there at all? Was it just an answering machine with its message erased? He tried calling back. This time, no answer.

• • •

He turned off his laptop’s WiFi receiver, turned it on again, then waited for a few minutes as it scanned for joinable networks. There it was again, Heathman Lodge, the little lock next to it insisting he couldn’t connect without the code. Then another network popped onto the list: Heathman Ldg, spelled as it had been on the map app, next to the blue dot. No lock icon next to it. He clicked on it and was almost immediately connected.

• • •

But something was odd about his screen. Power surge, maybe. It flickered, offered little bursts of static. He opened his company app, clicked on the tab with his appointments schedule, but instead of displaying the calendar his screen grew dim. He leaned in, peered closely. There was, just visible, a faint image of a circle on it, though not exactly a circle. He didn’t know if there was a word for the shape he was seeing. It was how a circle would look if it were alive and had a mouth. And an eye: it seemed to be watching him.

He reached very slowly toward the laptop, planning to close it without startling the circle that was not a circle. He had just touched the lid when the image changed. Three wavy lines now, vertically arranged, spooning one another—or no, four lines. No, three. No, five? Lines anyway, somehow three and four and five of them all at once. He tried to look away but found he could not. He groaned. And then the lines turned, all at once, and they were not lines at all but something vibrating with a music which was not of a frequency that he could actually hear but that he could feel buzzing on his skin.

• • •

He woke up hours later, still dressed, the laptop in front of him now dead. He was not sure exactly how much time had passed. Was it morning already? The sample books were scattered about on the bed, many of the samples removed and crumpled or torn. His head ached, and when he moved his eyes they felt like they were scraping against their sockets.

He closed the laptop and slipped it back into his briefcase. He stood up, went into the bathroom, looked into the mirror. His face was pale, drawn, as if he hadn’t slept. Perhaps he hadn’t. He steadied himself on the lip of the bathroom sink. What could he remember? Very little, vague memories, dreams maybe. His toiletries, he saw, had been emptied into the bathtub, the open bottles lying near the drain, webbed in dried foam. Had he done that?

He could remember the sound of someone at the door and the door opening and the noise of birds, but birds louder than he remembered the speakers in the hall being. A dream surely. And someone or something, several someones or somethings, in the room with him, and, even louder now, the noise of birds, the language of birds. His shirt was dotted here and there with something: fire mites he thought at first, dozens or even hundreds of them, but when he tried to brush them off nothing happened. He washed and dried his glasses and then moved closer to the mirror and saw they weren’t mites at all, but a blown mist of blood.

• • •

His mouth was very dry. He turned on the sink, lapped water from it like a dog, like an animal of some sort anyway. He washed his face. That was a little better. Not much, but a little. He was hungry, he realized. When had he last eaten? He returned to the bedroom and rifled through his bag. One last granola bar, at the very bottom, mostly crushed. He ate the broken chunks, shook the dust into his mouth, then took out his phone.

Already 9:30. He was running late. Time to go. But he hadn’t done anything here, hadn’t met with any merchants, hadn’t turned in his nightly report. He had let the company down. Surely that would mean he’d have to stay here another night. Where was here again?

But when he opened the company app he found a banner he hadn’t seen before. Congratulations! it said. Because of his diligence he was being chosen to represent a new product line to a new clientele base. A series of new sample books would be waiting for him in the next town.

• • •

For a few minutes he just held his head in his hands, then quickly he packed everything and headed out. The hall was just as deserted as it had been the afternoon before, no sound except for the piped-in bird noises. The elevator opened immediately when he touched the button. The lobby was deserted. He’d never paid, he realized. He dinged the bell, then dinged it again, but nobody came. Maybe the company had handled it for him? After all, he had been left a key under his name. He dinged again and shouted hello, but finally he left the key in the box and went out.

His car was still the only car. The shops still looked empty. He climbed in and opened the company app and looked at where he was going.

Next stop, it read, Lancaster.

Lancaster, he thought. He reached for the key, then stopped. Hadn’t he just been in Lancaster? He shook his head. He felt dazed, hadn’t gotten nearly enough sleep. The company had been running him ragged. He needed to call someone, ask for a few days off. But he could hardly do that right when he’d been promoted, could he?

He entered the coordinates for Lancaster into his phone. A path appeared on his car’s map screen, leading to the hotel he’d be staying at. The name sounded familiar. Must be a chain, he told himself. He must have stayed there before.

Something was wrong with the map: it wasn’t filling in. Where he currently was remained blank except for the red arrow that was his car. And where he was going was blank as well, except for the blue dot marked Heathman Ldg.

Putting the car into gear, he drove.

Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen and a half books of fiction, most recently None of You Shall Be Spared (2023) from Weird House Books. A new collection, Good Night, Sleep Tight will be published in September of 2024 by Coffee House Press. His work has won the World Fantasy Award, the International Horror Guild Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award, and has been a finalist for the Ray Bradbury Prize. He lives in Valencia, California and teaches at CalArts.