“It is coming up on 4PM, my friends. The temperature is a balmy 85 degrees, and the weatherman says we’ll see some clear skies tonight. My time with you is almost done, stargazers. Thank you for listening, this is 104.4 KZDD The Peak, I’m Dolly Hall, and I’ll be playing you out with an hour of nonstop music. First up, America’s Horse With No Name. Have a wonderful night, my stargazers.”
The soft guitar of the song picked up as Dolly’s voice faded on the radio in Sinclair’s Oldsmobile Cutlass. He rounded a corner slowly, glancing at the precipice where the shoulder dropped off the side of the mountain. Nothing but pines stretched out for miles, covering the slopes in a cascade of green velvet. He let his hand hang out the open window in the warm light of the sun as he passed out of the shadow cast by the peak he was winding his way up and over towards the quiet hamlet of Cobalt Peak. A sign he passed promised that it lay just over the peak of the hill, just a few miles to go.
He began to round back into shadow when his Cutlass shuddered and wheezed to a stop. He cursed, coasting to the next pulloff overlooking a panorama of pine forest. Dust kicked up around his tires as he pulled off the asphalt and onto the dirt shoulder. He popped the hood and left the door open while he went to check the state of the engine with his keys still in the ignition.
Sinclair blinked. He slipped through the dirt and into the void. He opened his eyes with a start and braced himself on the hood of the Cutlass, the ordeal over in what felt like seconds. His head spun as he regained his bearings and the world settled back into focus. Sinclair straightened up again and looked down the quiet road in both directions, vanishing from sight around the curve of the hill. The sun had fallen behind the crest of the mountains and cast him into an early summer dusk.
He pushed the hood closed again, forgetting why he opened it in the first place, and got back into the car. It started when he turned the key. The radio piped up as the engine roared to life again.
“--6:18PM on the mountain. This is 104.4 KZDD, I’m Randy Castillo, and I’ll be with you all night. Next up, we’ve got Depeche Mode’s Lie To Me, off their new album Some Great Reward.”
Sinclair’s throat tightened. He tried to shake off the nagging thought that it had just been four in the afternoon and flipped on his headlights for the rest of his drive down into Cobalt Peak. He squeezed the steering wheel as he drove, trying to stop the trembling in his hands.
He rolled into town in the shadow of the mountains. The sky still shone a bright blue, but the streetlights in Cobalt Peak glowed along the cozy main street. He pulled into the roughshod asphalt parking lot of the local dive, a lit sign declaring it Janie’s Diner. Below the name, two neon signs further stated “Bar”, and “24hr”. He sighed deeply and checked his hair in the rearview mirror. Despite his apparent fainting spell, not a single lock of hair fell out of line. He dabbed at the sweat collected on his brow with the sleeve of his suit jacket and made a note not to take it off in the diner, sure he had pit stains on his shirt.
He entered the diner and looked up at the woman behind the counter, her face bare of makeup for her day at work but her hair so stiff it would hurt to touch. She nodded at him and tucked the rag she was using to wipe down the counter below the bar.
“Hey hon, go ahead and seat yourself. I’ll be over in a moment,” she said.
Sinclair thanked her and picked out a corner booth far from the other patrons of the diner and close to the stairwell lit with strung chili lights that led down to the bar. Music drifted up the stairs and mixed with the chatter of the diner.
The woman approached his table and set a menu in front of him. Her nametag read Angie. “Can I get you something to drink, hon?”
“Coffee would be great. Black.” Sinclair said, picking up the menu and turning it over to read the back.
“Mmhm,” Angie cocked an eyebrow at him, but shrugged off his curt response, “I’ll have to brew a new pot, should take me a few minutes.”
“That’s fine.” Sinclair finished scanning the brief history of Janie’s Diner and the story of the UFO sighting that brought the owner to Cobalt Peak 30 years prior as Angie walked away.
He opened the menu booklet and looked over their offerings. His eyes fell on a description of an elk burger that made his mouth water. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever tried elk, but he assumed it would be like the venison or buffalo his uncle used to serve at Christmas dinner. Something juicy, succulent, and just a little bit gamier than beef to take his mind off the strange drive into town and the fact he was going to pull up to his uncle’s old winter home in the dark.
His home, now. The deed was in a manilla folder, stuffed in the trunk with all the other things deemed worthy enough to drag all the way from Chicago to Arizona. Angie set a glass of ice water in front of him as she took her next pass around the diner and turned the corner of the staircase into the bar. He sipped the water as he waited for his coffee.
Angie returned not long afterward with a steaming mug of coffee and a small carafe of cream. She set them both down in front of him and pulled out a notepad. “What can I get you?”
Sinclair cleared his throat and picked up the menu again to remind himself. “Uh, the green chili elk burger.”
“Fries alright with that?” Angie asked him, scribbling down the dish.
Sinclair shook his head. “No, a house salad instead? It’s fine if it’s an upcharge.”
“No upcharge, hon,” Angie assured him, “enjoy your coffee, I’ll have that out for you in a few.”
“Thank you,” Sinclair sighed. He slumped on the table, then straightened up again and pulled the coffee towards him. He sipped at it and scalded his tongue. He eyed the carafe of milk in the center of the table and thought it wouldn’t hurt to add a little. He took another sip of coffee.
Angie returned only twice more, once with his meal and again with his check. He watched patrons leaving the bar downstairs. They wore matching tie-dye shirts declaring “Alien Patrol” in green letters. They leaned on each other as they staggered out into the parking lot to pile into a yellow van and drove off in the direction of the Coconino National Forest for a night of UFO spotting and stargazing. Sinclair set a five dollar bill and some change on top of the check and left in the wake of the Alien Patrol.
The lit stretch of Main Street gave way to a forest. Windows shone between the trees as the sky darkened. Sinclair drove towards the cabin. He focused on the pool of light directly down the hood of his car as he turned onto the long dirt driveway that led into a dark section of forest just outside the town proper. His car bumped down the rough road until it opened up into an overgrown clearing with a two story log cabin at its center. It loomed, an empty shadow before him. A spider’s web glowed in the headlights between the posts holding up the roof of the porch. When he turned the headlights off, everything fell into blackness. He groped for the maglite he kept in the door of the car.
The light illuminated the inside of the Cutlass while he searched for his overnight bag. He swung it over his shoulder and slammed the car door. The cicadas in the trees screamed, creating a curtain of noise that blanketed the forest. Sinclair reached up on top of the doorframe and felt around for the spare key his uncle's lawyer had left him. The key resisted in the lock for a moment, but Sinclair gave it a shove. The key clicked, and the door swung inward with a creak.
Sinclair turned the foyer lights on and thought about going to the town hardware store for oil the next day. He assumed the creaky door was just one of many repairs to consider. He locked and bolted the door behind him. The inside of the cabin boasted the questionable taste uncle Mattie was known for. A stag’s head mounted on the wall over the fireplace surveyed an assortment of globetrotting knicknacks and furniture covered in plastic. In the kitchen, a brick pizza oven sat cold beside a gas range with orange accents.
Sinclair peeked into the upstairs rooms. A taxidermy bobcat perched atop a branch emerging from the wall of the guest bedroom eyed the bed, and a locked door at the end of the hallway warned him off with two key-turn deadbolts and an antique padlock suggesting a heavy skeleton key. Sinclair figured the locked room used to be Mattie's office, and made a note to break in later. The bobcat in the guest room was an issue for another day -- maybe he’d keep the cat around to scare off visiting family.
He dropped his overnight bag on the bed in the master bedroom beneath a painting of people engaged in an orgy -- an ugly thing painted in a mockery of Picasso's cubist style, each person engaged in the act with a different unnatural color and expression. Sinclair averted his eyes and opted to check if the hot water was working through the medium of a relaxing shower. He put himself to bed early. There would be much to do tomorrow if he wanted to make this cabin even remotely livable, after all.