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Authors: Clifford D. Simak

Out of Their Minds

BOOK: Out of Their Minds
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Out of Their Minds

Clifford D. Simak

1

I kept remembering that old friend of mine and what he'd said to me that last time I had seen him. It had been only two days before he had been killed—on an open highway which, at the time of the accident, had not been as heavily traveled as it was at other times, his car a twisted block of wreckage and the tire marks showing how it all had happened, how his car had struck another which suddenly had swerved out of its lane into his path. Except that there had been no sign of that other car.

I tried to put it out of my mind and think of something else, but as the hours went by and the long ribbon of concrete kept unrolling ahead of me and the springtime countryside went flashing past, I found myself time and time again going back to that last evening I had seen him.

He had sat like a shrunken gnome in the great lounge chair which threatened to engulf him in its pattern of red and yellow tapestry, rolling the brandy glass between his palms and looking up at me.

“I think that we are haunted,” he had said, “by all the fantasies, all the make-believe, all the ogres that we have ever dreamed, dating from that day when the caveman squatted in the dark beside his fire and stared out into the blackness of the night which lay beyond the cave. Imagining what might be out there. Knowing, of course, what might be out there, for he would have been the one to know—a hunter, a gatherer, a roamer of the wilderness. He had eyes to see and nose to smell and ears to hear and all these senses, more than likely, were much sharper than those we have today. So he would have known all the things that might be prowling in the darkness. He knew, of course, but he didn't trust himself, he didn't trust those senses. For that busy little brain of his, for all its brutishness, was busily conjuring up other forms and shapes, other kinds of life, other menaces …”

“And you think it is the same with us?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” he said, “but in a different way.”

A small breath of air had been blowing from the garden through the open doors that led out to the patio and the room was faintly perfumed with the scent of springtime bloom. And through the doors as well came the distant muttering of a plane as it circled over the Potomac to line up for a landing on the field across the river.

“In a different way,” he said. “I'd have to think it out. Not the kind of ogres, perhaps, that the caveman dreamed. For his were physical and most of those conjured up today, I would imagine, would be intellectual.”

I had the feeling that he was about to say much more about this strange conceit of his, but at that moment his nephew, Philip Freeman, came into the room. Philip, who worked at State, had a strange and amusing story to tell about a visiting VIP and after that our talk had fallen to other things and there was no further mention of our haunting.

Up ahead of me loomed the warning sign for the exit to the Old Military Road and I cut my speed to make the turn and once I was on the road I cut it even further. After several hundred miles of steady driving at a cruising speed of eighty miles an hour, forty seemed like crawling and forty was too fast for the kind of road I found myself upon.

I had, in fact, almost forgotten that there could be a road like this. At one time it had been blacktop, but in many stretches the blacktop had broken up in some springtime thaw and the surface had been patched with crushed rock which, through years of wear, had been pulverized into a fine white dust. The road was narrow and this narrowness was underlined by a heavy growth of brush, almost like a hedge, which had grown in on either side, encroaching on the shoulders so that one moved through a leafy avenue that made the road seem a shallow, twisting ditch.

The throughway had followed the ridgetop, but the Old Military Road immediately began to dip down between the hills and this, of course, was the way that I remembered it, although I had not recalled that the dip had been so sharp once one had left the ridge road, which some years back had been re-engineered and widened into the throughway I had been traveling.

A different kind of world, I thought, and that, of course, had been what I sought. Although I'd not expected to find this different world so abruptly, by the simple process of turning off the throughway. And the world, more than likely, was not so entirely different; it was, I told myself, my imagination that had made it seem so different, a self-willed seeing of what I had been looking forward to.

Would I really find Pilot Knob unchanged? I wondered. It seemed unlikely, on the face of it, that the little village would have changed. It had had no chance to change. It had lain for all these years so far outside the stream of current affairs, so untouched and so ignored, that there would have been no reason for a change. But the question, I admitted to myself, was not so much whether Pilot Knob had changed, but how much I might have changed.

Why, I wondered, should a man so yearn toward his past, knowing even as he yearned that no autumn tree could flame as brightly as it had on a certain morning thirty years before, that the waters of the creek could not run as clear or cold or deep as he remembered them, that much, in fact, of what he did remember were experiences reserved for someone no more than ten years old?

There had been a hundred other places (and more convenient places) I could have chosen—places where there also would have been freedom from the clatter of the phone, where there'd be no memos to be written, no deadlines to be met, no important persons one must know, no need of being continuously well-informed and knowledgeable, no necessity of conforming to a complicated set of sophisticated folk customs. A hundred other places where a man would have time to think and write, where he need not shave except when he wanted to, where sloppy clothes could be worn and no one would notice them, where one could be lazy if one wished, unconcerned if one wished, ignorant if one wished, where a person never needed to be clever and never needed to be witty and could deal in a comfortable sort of gossip that was entirely insignificant.

A hundred other places and yet when I'd made my decision, there'd been no question of exactly where I'd go. Kidding myself, perhaps, but happy in the kidding. Running home, but not admitting to myself that I was running home. Even knowing as I drove those long paved miles that there was no such place as I thought there was and that there never had been, that the years had twisted the memory of it into that pleasant sort of fantasy with which men beguile themselves in thinking back upon their youth.

The day had been moving into evening when I'd turned off the throughway and in places now, when the road plunged down from one small valley to another, heavy dark had started to creep in. Off across the valleys, in the gathering dusk, glowed the soft white spheres of fruit trees in full bloom and at times I caught little gusts of fragrance from blooming trees, hidden from my sight, but much closer by. Even with evening no more than setting in, it seemed to me that I could smell, as well, the strange perfume of fog rising from the meadows that lay along the winding creeks.

I had told myself, for years, that I knew this country I was driving through. That its imprint had so remained upon my mind from childhood that I could drive unerringly to Pilot Knob once I was upon the road. But now I began to suspect that I was wrong. For I had not, so far, recognized one specific feature of the landscape. The general features, surely, for the country was exactly as I had remembered it, but there had not been one specific place I had been able to put a finger on and say exactly where I was. It was exasperating and a bit humiliating and I wondered if this was the way that it would be when I got to Pilot Knob.

The road was bad, far worse than I had expected it to be. Why, I wondered, had the people who were responsible allowed it to get into this condition? The snaking curves that ran along the contours of the hills could be understood, of course, but not the chuck holes and stretches of deep dust, and long ago something should have been done about the narrow stone bridges where there would not have been room for two cars to pass. Not that there were any other cars. I seemed alone upon the road.

The darkness deepened and I turned on the lights. Some time past, and I cut my speed, at times creeping along at no more than twenty miles an hour. Those snaking turns were coming up much too fast for safety.

Pilot Knob, I knew, could not be too distant, forty miles at most from where I'd turned off the throughway, and since that time I was fairly certain I had covered much more than half of those forty miles. I would have known if I'd checked my mileage when I'd turned off, but I hadn't.

The road grew worse instead of better, and suddenly it seemed much worse than it had been before. I was driving up a narrow gorge, with the hills crowding close on either side and massive boulders squatting by the roadside, just at the edge of the fan of light thrown by the headlamps. The evening had changed as well. The few stars that had been in the sky were gone and from far off I heard the distant muttering of thunder, rolling down the funnel of the hills.

I wondered if I'd missed a turn somewhere, if in the darkness I had taken a road that led out of the valley. Checking back mentally, I could not remember that there had been any place where the road had split. Since I had turned off on the Old Military Road, there had been this single road, with now and then a farm road coming into it, but always at right angles or very nearly so.

Turning a sharp bend, I glimpsed, off to the right, a low huddle of buildings, with a gleam of light from a single window. I lifted my foot off the accelerator and moved it toward the brake, half-minded to stop and ask my way. But for some reason which I do not pretend to know, I decided not to do it and drove on. If it should be necessary, I could always find another place where I could turn around and come back to ask directions. Or there would be another little farm where I could stop to ask.

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