The only thing the man knows is the speed, the aneurysm in his brain exploding his mind away in a growing star of light. The speed pushes him down, all eighteen-hundred pounds of the two-seater ultralight aircraft hurtling his body towards the rippling slab of water below. The man doesn’t know when it is that he dies; if it’s when the g-forces snap his neck or when the fuselage dismembers on impact, skipping his body across the whitecaps like a rag doll, dumping his corpse into the shallows of Haunted Plum Island. That’s the end of the man’s life, and the beginning of Crasher’s, if what Crasher has can be called a life. More like a half-life, an echoing existence of memory remembering itself with diminishing returns. Something keeps it in this world, the same thing that draws in all the lost things and brings them to Haunted Plum Island.
Crasher wakes to a one-eyed stuffed rabbit trying to steal his shoe, its slight weight and matted paws insufficient to the task. Progress is negligible and soon the rabbit is stomping itself into the sand, its remaining black button-eye loose and swaying around its head in a lariat of frustration. A teddy bear stands just to the side of Crasher, perched on a stunted tuft of dune grass and reciting the lord’s prayer in a static-garbled boy’s sing-song, plaintive amber eyes positioned heavenward at some unspeakable horror floating just above. Crasher looks for whatever the bear sees: a wide blue sky crisscrossed by the vapor trails of countless small aircraft searching for a place to land.
A pin-prick in his ankle. The rabbit’s back at it, sawing Crasher’s ankle with a piece of glass. In between hacks the rabbit glares, hissing and cackling with insane glee, its dangling eye swinging to the rhythm of its make-shift blade. Crasher watches blood leak through his sock, doesn’t associate the pain with himself, till he does. He jerks his foot and sends the rabbit flying overhead, its screaming little body disappearing into the waist-high dune grass.
Crasher sits up, uncovering his capacity for movement through experimentation, flailing his arms and legs in the sand till he’s on his feet and standing. He looks down and sees what he is, the body of a man in jeans and a t-shirt. Hot pain brightens the world in red blooms. He clutches at where his head should be and finds a dense mist, a small cloud that drenches his hands bloody. He searches further into the mist, fumbling towards an epicenter, finds a fist-sized ball of heat. He touches it and the world goes white with agony.
The bear starts delivering him his last rites. Crasher stands, tries to scream and can’t, tries again and hears a moan emanating from the mist on his shoulders.
“I thought you were dead mister,” the bear offers through static, “but you’re all set now, you can die anytime you want.”
Crasher doesn’t know about dying, doesn’t know anything besides pain. He keeps trying to scream, keeps hearing shapeless noise emanating from the top of him.
“If you try, you can maybe talk. I couldn’t talk before I got here. I’m not sure though, you don’t have a head. You can hear me, right?”
Crasher feels himself nod, feels his arm and hand give a thumbs up, and remembers a little more of what his body should and shouldn’t do. He realizes he can see, that he’s been seeing all along, and hearing. He tries harder, focuses on the mild connections he can make, noticing that as he thinks, shapes emerge, ideas and images form, retreat and advance, a synesthesia of thoughts spinning through his field of vision.
“It’s not like how it was,” the prayer bear soothes. “My eyes aren’t made of squishy and they work.” The little bear taps one of its permanently raised plastic eyes for emphasis.
Crasher moans, the sound emanating from the star of light deep within his head-mist.
“Wowee-Zowee! That looks painful mister. You’re all exploded up there.” The bear mimes an explosion with its paws. “I’m Ruggles. Welcome to Plum Island. I hang around here in case Mr. Hops kills any of the new arrivals. You should probably get going. He might try again.”
Crasher works on moving, allowing instinct to snap his legs and arms into place. He takes a few wobbly steps till it feels natural and examines the beach, endless and humped with grassy dunes that ripple in a light breeze. In the middle distance an old man, skin loose and puddled by age, is stripping out of his clothes and marching into the gentle surf.
“That’s Harold Holt,” Ruggles informs him, as the old man breaststrokes out to sea. “Hi Harold!”
Crasher lets the concept of Harold sink in, attempts to find meaning in it and does not. He shrugs. Ruggles continues yelling at Harold Holt till the old man waves a dismissive hand back and disappears beneath the curling whitecaps, severing the bear’s interest.
“What’s your name mister?”
Crasher thinks about names, the images in his brain swishing the concept around in a loose snow of cyphers. He shrugs.
“How’d you die?”
“Awww. That’s always a good conversation starter. What do you remember?”
Crasher thinks about what he can remember, thinks about what remembering is. He reaches for the pictures floating in his head mist, the images of smiling people, of different sized people, people inexplicably becoming larger and smaller versions of themselves, people in front of mountains, people in go-carts; a man and woman hand in hand on a beach not unlike the one he is lost on now; the same man and woman holding two small people, identical twins, a boy and girl, their faces fuzzy. He understands that they should mean something to him, but his exploded mind can go no further than this initial realization, the aneurism star at his center causing him to lose his mental grasp as soon he tugs on a thread of familiarity.
After a few silent seconds Ruggles gives him a tiny hug around the shin, “Poor fella.”
From a dune nearby a not-so-hidden Mr. Hops watches and cackles, the little mass murderer brandishing his jagged sea-glass, button eye swinging in the wind. And Crasher starts walking, the thoughts of his mind sparking but disconnected, little Ruggles wrapped around his leg, giving his every other step an awkward buckle. And soon the bear is laughing with each swinging step, hooting in joy between bouts of Hail Marys, heavenward eyes locking in on Crasher with what looks like boundless affection.
Crasher follows the shore, mystified by the strange animals that watch him from the sandy bluffs: mammoth-sized sloths dragging their knuckles and gawky dodo birds. Massive fins cut the deep waters past the shallows, joined by the occasional tiny dinosaur head perched onto a tapering tree-trunk neck. Near the horizon line some impossible leviathan rolls its endless spine, curling V-shaped protrusions the size of small buildings down towards fathomless depths.
From his shin Ruggles provides constant commentary, all of which falls on Crasher’s dull, uncaring mind. But the bear doesn’t seem deterred; if anything, Crasher’s indifference to this forgotten zoology only adds to the teddy’s enthusiasm.
Out on the sea a small patch of fog is rolling in, a lone grey cloud stark against the surrounding blue, the rust colored fin of a Megalodon cruising nearby. A soft, sad pop melody emanates from the cloud, backed by a warbling Scottish brogue. Crasher can just make out a body floating inside. He feels Ruggles scrabbling up the back of his leg, appearing miraculously on his shoulder, leaning outwards so as to avoid his dome of blood-mist.
Crasher puts a hand to his non-brow to try and see better, realizes he can’t and doesn’t have a brow. “He was only lost for a little while,” Ruggles continues, “then he got found. So he floats by every once in a long while.”
Crasher doesn’t understand the words, but he feels the effect, likes the soothing and melancholic sound, something immediate that doesn’t require his blown apart neurons to digest. Ruggles hums on his shoulder, and he sees that several other stuffies have joined them on the beach, swaying in a pacified rhythm as the sad gray cloud rolls over the whitecaps.
The stuffies remain till the Scott Hutchison weather-front rolls out of earshot, after which they scurry off in angry pursuit of one another, feral and wild. Ruggles watches them from his perch, head hung in disappointment. “Poor fellas,” he says. “Will you help me pray for them mister?”
Ruggles doesn’t wait for a reply, goes straight into a rendition of The Apostle’s Creed, the recital tinny with AM radio static. Crasher waits, not sure what’s expected of him, but as the prayer winds down he finds that he’s been humming along with the melody. He finds that, while he cannot remember anything from before he arrived on the island, he can remember a little of what has happened since.
Crasher continues to follow the coast, an invisible tether he does not understand keeping Ruggles in his constant orbit. He tries staggering his walking speeds, slowing down and speeding up to see if this makes any change in the bear’s presence. It does not. He tries moving as fast as his body will allow him, running till he falls, outpacing the bear till the little thing is an undeterred speck on the horizon, pumping its furry stub-legs up and down, up and down.
He hides behind a sand dune, watches Ruggles stand quiet and alone before the babbling surf, munching on a paw, taking two uncertain steps forward only to take those same steps back.
The bear sits down and waits, lies down and waits, time flowing unnoticed through Crasher’s experiment. The world grows gold then purple then dark, the moon’s silver gleam calming the oceanic waters into a wrinkling sheet of luminous white, Ruggles a small and insubstantial shadow prone before it. A gentle breeze floats the bear’s prayer to the Archangel Michael into Crasher’s would-be ears, the refrain punctuated by brief sobs.
Something curdles beneath Crasher’s ribs. He stumbles down the dune and trudges towards the bear, waving his arms and stomping to make himself known. For a few minutes Ruggles avoids looking at him, turns away and cries into the sand. Crasher picks the bear up and is surprised when the teddy stops crying and starts clinging to his chest.
They sit there in the silver light till the world returns to its brighter form, after which Crasher continues his wandering of the island’s circumference, finding himself taking constant note of Ruggles’s whereabouts, thinking obliquely of the bear’s safety every time it decides to jump into a pile of driftwood.
Together they march on, Crasher following the water and Ruggles following Crasher, cycling through night and day, a pattern Crasher recognizes but cannot understand, aside from the obvious effect, the entirety of his being feeling like a thought on the brink of forming, a word on the tip of a tongue. They exhaust the shoreline, coming once again to the pruned body of Harold Holt, naked and setting out to sea.
“Hi Harold!” Ruggles calls again, fully ignored this time.
Crasher ponders the ramifications of another three-hundred degrees of wandering, contemplates the value of the experience and decides to walk inland, a proposition that does not entirely enthuse the usually overenthusiastic Ruggles, who proceeds to chew his paws as Crasher continues to gesticulate his desire to wander towards a center point.
“I dunno, things get weirdo that way. The center is a no-good place. Stuff falls from the sky and there’s no Harold and people eat each other,” the bear protests, but to no avail. Crasher’s already moving, having learned that Ruggles is certain to follow. Which he does, his eagerness to please prompting him to sprint into the lead and point out the island’s numerous denizens and events, references that pelt Crasher’s uncomprehending mind like rain. He does not know who Jimmy Hoffa is, does not know why this person hopelessly tries to unionize the feral stuffies. He thinks nothing of the chattering shapes of Amelia Earhart and Henry Hudson, huddled in conspiracy and drawing lunatic escape plans under a driftwood lean-to. He understands that these are concepts he used to know, but he doesn’t know them anymore. What he does know is how to put one foot in front of the other, how to trudge through the purgatorial expanse of dune as lost socks and pen-caps rain-trickle from the sky, an item drizzle punctuated by the occasional meteor of a lost satellite, a retired mailbox, a shattered porcelain bath.
Inward the terrain becomes more and more clogged and cluttered, strange and incomprehensible. Crasher and Ruggles pass boats stranded in the sand, galleons and catamarans still manned by their fretful sailors; sarcophagi of forgotten and misplaced dead, gold death masks glinting in the sun’s rays; the mashed-together wet debris of marinas obliterated by tidal waves. Overhead the crisscrossing swarm of planes thickens till the sky grows messy with the cross-stitch pattern of their jets.
Every so often Ruggles stops and listens to the wind and instructs Crasher to hide on the far side of a dune so as not to suffer the cannibal wrath of the wandering John Franklin expedition, desperate in its search for Great Slave Lake and willing to do anything to get there, though it never will. Crasher stares into the blue each time he hides, pondering the countless planes above, never landing and never taking off, hidden till the Franklin expedition has sledged by, in hot pursuit of some shipwrecked soul or exiled Native American ancient.
The garbage piles turn into swells, then small jagged hills punctuated by brief attempts at order. The debris parts into a canyon, a thoroughfare of restrained chaos: Jimmy Hoffa, suited and flat topped, screams from atop stacked milk-crates to a swarming stuffy horde; a man that may or may not be D. B. Cooper operates a facsimile of a bank out of a lemonade stand with a duffle bag of cash; dingos circle and snarl around a crinkled old woman hunched down on all fours, waiting on her every yip, dropping maimed stuffies at her feet. A gun shot whistles through Crasher’s insubstantial head, and the main street goes empty, except for the dingos who sprint towards the source, turning back the approaching John Franklin expedition with a slavering charge of teeth.
Crasher finds himself speed-walking through the ruckus, Ruggles tucked under one arm, his developing thoughts buried under an immediate desire to get the hell away from his current location. The gaze of the haunted isle’s mad denizens crawls after him. They’ve seen better and they’ve seen worse, and they don’t wish him anything at all.
As the sun struggles towards the horizon, Ruggles insists on being carried, tugging and swinging from Crasher’s neck as he points out the way to the center, the swarming trash hills in the distance. They come to a clearing in the trash that’s filled with rough cabins, a vacant little hamlet with a hanging sign calling it New Roanoke. The settlement appears to be recently abandoned, cook-fires still smoldering, damp laundry still clinging to lines. Despite all this, Crasher sees shapes in the corner of his vision, turning always to find the shadow of something disappearing behind a corner. He stands there in the growing darkness, Ruggles sleepy in his arms, feeling both alone and watched. But it’s as good a place to rest as any, with plenty of places to hide should the John Franklin expedition come around again.
Crasher settles into the sand with his ward snuggled into his chest, the teddy bear reciting for the umpteenth time how a little girl named Clementine forgot him under a hotel bed in San Francisco and never came back. How he moldered with the dust and spiders till he simply appeared on the island, in the way that all stuffies do. How happy he is to have a new very best friend. Crasher listens to this story with tired interest, enjoying the bear’s little static voice more so than the content. He looks at the pictures that swarm his head, sure by now which ones are of his children, yet still unable to make out their faces or feel anything.
He waits for what he thinks is sleep, the dim star inside his blood-vapor winking out as he relinquishes consciousness. Once his body has been still for a while, the feral stuffies that have been hiding emerge from the starlit bones of the surrounding cabins and cautiously approach. They find places of comfort on or against Crasher’s sleeping body. They snuggle in deep, and Crasher snuggles back, and in the soft dogpile he dreams of his children, not knowing who or what they are.
Crasher wakes to find Mr. Hops attempting to steal his shoe, again, the deranged rabbit glaring at him with each fruitless tug. Crasher feels himself smile inside his blood-mist, liking the feeling of comfort and rest. He wiggles his ankle to help Hops remove the boot, doing most of the work. It takes minutes but the rabbit gets its prize and drags it way into the sand, howling in victory. Crasher relaxes, wiggles out of his other boot and kicks it away, watching it arc through his vision overhead. He feels the sand in his toes, granular and soft, a sensation that delights him.
He searches his chest and finds that part of Ruggles is missing. The little bear’s severed head is on the sand nearby, still gazing heavenward, Mr. Hops’s jagged piece of glass stuck in the riot of yellow fluff exploding from the jagged neck. Something inside Crasher goes heavy and cold. He does not like the image of Ruggles’s head the way it is. He picks up the head and cups it in his hand, pokes it, rubs it against his chest, shakes it for some kind of response.
Hops continues to cackle nearby. Crasher follows the sound and finds the rabbit jumping in and out of its new footwear. The rabbit laughs at him, dances in little tribal circles around the boot, wiggles its tufted little butt in insult. Crasher watches the display, frozen, studying the feeling of his rage, his fingers taut and heavy. He pulls the rabbit up by its ears, grabs it from both ends and tears it apart, unleashing a squeal into the morning air. Then there is the breeze and the shadows growing long and dark.
There is no path that leads to the island’s center, only the ever accumulating driftwood and detritus, the tinder hills in the distance give an assurance that there is in fact some epicenter to the sprawl. Stuffies crawl over the piles of garbage like woodlice, bashing each other over the head in a comedy routine they cannot help but perform. They pause their violence as Crasher passes, falling into step behind him and trying to tackle him down from the back of his knees, only to bounce away and scurry back into the trash.
Crasher takes no notice, he holds the head of Ruggles to his blood-mist head as if trying to hear the whispering of a seashell. Ruggles whispers nothing and Crasher continues; aimless, determining in his oblique way to journey in the direction of larger things.
He wanders through shattered streets, transported wholesale from Carthage and Aleppo, where the dusty ghosts of disintegrated soldiers take potshots at each other from the bombed-out husks of buildings, the combination of flying bullets and whipping sand conjuring fatal weather, the scorched bodies of Pompeians a mute audience to the eternal combat.
Beyond the crumbling urban battlegrounds Crasher finds pitched warfare, the undead corpses of mangled knights and myrmidons stumbling unsteady on missing limbs, occasionally meeting blades. Crasher attempts to ask the bloody remains of an eviscerated, decapitated Trojan how to best resuscitate Ruggles, finding that the headless swordsman suffers from similar communication issues. The undead Trojan waves its one remaining arm in what may or may not be a response, only to have the conversation cut short by an errant cannon ball that spreads what’s left of the soldier in several directions. Crasher attempts to gather up the pieces, but cannot find them all. He listens as a buff skirt-wearer screams that he is the real Achilles and shouldn’t be here at all until a cannonball gets him too, taking his left leg out from under him.
Crasher follows the trajectory of the artillery to a line of trebuchets, cannons, and scorpion crossbows. A grenadier with large holes in his face throws rocks at him. Crasher passes through the mortar lines, marches past the launch platform of a sea-scummed warhead being prepped for launch. At the count of ten the missile goes up like a star, hangs bright and yellow, motionless in the brief moment it takes to turn over and start its descent, targeting anything and everything. The combatants lay down their arms and clap, oohing and ahhing in anticipation of the oncoming detonation. The nobody who might be Achilles waves his severed ankle as proof and is crushed wholesale by the missile’s tip.
The explosion sparks a quasar into Crasher’s vision, his eyeless gaze capable of taking in the true atomic brightness, the innards of a man-made sun rushing out towards him. He huddles his body around Ruggles’s head and waits for the rushing wall of force and heat to wash him away.
He comes to in a cul-de-sac, the clothes scorched from his body, skin red and blistered, Ruggles’s cranium surprisingly well preserved in the folds of his stomach. A poor representation of suburbia rolls out before him, a manicured avenue of sand with driftwood shanties constructed into two rows. On one side of the sandy street, forlorn men and women in plaid shirts stand outside the shanties, staring through teary eyes at the nothing inside. Every ten seconds they rub their brows and move on to the next shanty in a line, heads hung, melancholy oozing from their steps.
Across from them, on the other side, rough-looking teenagers smoke cigarettes and play catch amongst themselves, spiking a ball into the sand and cursing.
A tornado-warped Tulsa highway exit sign painted over with the words The Church of Absent Parents looms, a bald man in a potato-sack robe beneath it, watching the hangdog parents abandon shanty after shanty.
“Keep that head down Jerry! You gotta really feel it in your neck! Are you abandoning your son or are you abandoning a watermelon?” He nods without looking as Crasher approaches, “Amateur hour, huh? You here to sign up? I can get you a plaid shirt and a spreadsheet in no time. What’s your thing? Sports or horses? We only got sports and horses.” The man looks up and starts, “You’re pretty naked. You know that right?”
Crashes shrugs. He presents what remains of Ruggles to the potato-sack man.
“I don’t get it.”
Crasher mimes placing Ruggles’s head onto his shoulder, drops the severed little cranium into his blood-mist and removes it dripping.
“Oooooookay? Are you or are you not here to abandon some kids?”
“Did you abandon any children while you were alive?”
“Did you have children?”
Crasher thinks of the pictures in his head, the smiling blurs, the people without faces. He nods.
“And you abandoned them?”
Crasher shrugs. The potato-sack man sighs and purses his lips. Again Crasher dips Ruggles into his blood-mist, bobbing the head for emphasis.
“I don’t understand. You want to wear the little bear head? . . . You do realize you don’t have a head right? . . . You’ve got like a . . . blood cloud with a light on inside it.”
“So yes, you want to wear the bear head or. . . ?”
Crasher shakes no. He mimes placing the head on top of his fist, doing his best to convince the potato-sack man of how he’d like to put Ruggles back together.
“Look man, things seem pretty tough for you, but unless you’re a deadbeat parent who left and never came back, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ve got the cathartic melee coming up so you probably want to bounce. Why don’t you wander the isle? You look like somebody who should be wandering the isle. That’s what most of the crazies do, you’ll fit right in. Okay? Watch out for John Franklin.”
Crasher continues placing the bear on his hand, adding force till he’s smashing the two together. He’s still smashing when the first teenage runaway screams, sprints across the avenue, and tackles the nearest absent parent. The congregation of the Church of Absent Parents watch as the teenager attempts to strangle the unresisting parent to death. Another teenager breaks from the other side of the street, tripping and falling as she makes her way towards a woman thinking about knocking on a shanty door but lacking the courage to do so. The teenager tackles the woman into the shanty, which collapses into a sandy explosion of cracked wood. All hell breaks loose. The remaining teenagers throw up a war cry and charge, cigarettes raised to stab at eyes.
As the battle unfolds around him Crasher attempts to question the combatants as to how he can put Ruggles back together. A teenage runaway confuses him for an absent parent and tries to brain him with a fencepost, only to have the stake pass through Crasher’s non-corporeal blood-mist and crack another runaway instead. The woman tackled into the shanty crawls out, wraps her body around the fallen runaway, screaming “My son! My son! My boooooooyyyyy.”
A sea change whispers through the quarreling generations. Absent parents release collars and lower cocked elbows. Runaways remove their teeth from ankles. They gather around the fallen teenager and the woman who’s claimed him, pressing their bodies inwards until they form one large crying mass, petting each other’s heads and screaming at the plane-congested heavens.
Crasher considers the pile, searches through the memories that swarm his blood-mist, grasping at them like butterflies, releasing those that don’t feel quite right. There is a girl in his head, a blurry, faceless teenager climbing a rope in gym shorts and a sleeveless tee. Over and over she climbs. A moment on rewind. His child. He wonders if he is absent to her. If what he is feeling over Ruggles’s death is what the crying parents in the love-scrum are feeling. If he is feeling anything at all. He tries to hug and pet the climbing-girl image only to have his hands pass through it, only to have it flutter away into the vaporized blood that sits on his shoulders, orbiting the star at its center.
The potato-sack man clicks his pen and takes notes on the parent-child pile, and just like that, Crasher’s forgotten. He looks at the little head in his hands and tries to scream at the heavens.
Crasher walks in what he thinks is the right direction, the sun radiating the ancient refuse, emanating a metallic sweetness into the salty air. The piles get smaller and Crasher enters a flatland of dense garbage, compressed and baked into a bleached gray hardpan. The heart of the island unfurls itself before him, an Everest peak twinkling in the distant haze, ringed by swelling hills of discarded and misplaced things that grow in size and frequency towards the center.
The forces of the world go strange as he crests the foothills of the great trash mountain, time moving strangely, physics bent by some unnatural gravity, the thatched sky and its planes sucked down to some distant point. As he climbs he begins to disappear and reappear, blinking into and out of garbage piles the size of ocean swells, each revealing an even greater peak beyond. He doesn’t understand or remember the moments between appearances, but he feels the stomach-churning lurch that precedes them, the sudden inexplicable taste of purple that accompanies any and all quantum weirdness. The eyes of strange idols watch his erratic progress, totems to forgotten gods obscured and swallowed by accumulations of loose change, knit caps, marbles, broken key-chains, the scarred bricks of battered city walls, the stone-fused bones of fossils. Everything stirs in this monolithic world’s end, Crasher a lone particle in a vortexing ocean.
Near the mountain’s peak gravity flips and Crasher is launched to the summit. As he rises over the crest he finds that the mountain is hollow, a yawning mouth driven down its center like an anthill. The mouth inhales him, drags him across the jagged trash till Crasher gains purchase on a sphinx’s claw protruding over the downward ridge. He clutches Ruggles tight, flutters like a man-shaped flag and gazes upon the black-hole center of this ancient dump, a sea-sized sinkhole swallowing the island’s most ancient and forgotten artifacts, chunks of Atlantis and Lemuria, the sky itself sucked down in a fine stream of blue and crashing airplanes. The rumble of this continuous destruction crawls across existence like animal thunder, vibrates the droplets of Crasher’s blood-mist head, an unspeakable heartbeat. Crasher watches as things disappear into the yawning blackness, an entire ziggurat tipping, sliding, and disappearing into eternal obsolescence.
He considers letting go, considers extinguishing the aneurysm star that destroys his mind ad-infinitum. The blood-vapor on his shoulders starts to suck inwards, along with the snapshot memories that flutter inside. Crasher knows he doesn’t have forever to decide, not in this place that wants nothing but to destroy. He nearly looses his grasp clutching at the floating memories, new ones suctioned from his star every second, the pieces of his former life in a tractor beam towards oblivion. But as they depart, he can see them. He feels ice in his gut and it scares him. He recognizes fear. He remembers it. He remembers everything as it is taken from him. His life. His wife. His children. The feel of dog fur. Slow dancing to Racing in the Street, naked in a motel room. The smell of grass and sea on wet nights.
With one hand he pulls himself away, desperate to stop the erosion. But he’s too slow to be saved, loosing piece after piece of his mind, again. He considers dropping Ruggles, but knows he can’t, knows that his responsibility towards the little bear doesn’t die in death. But he needs both hands, before there is nothing left to save. He shoves Ruggles’s head into his blood-mist, into the star which swells with the added mass, its increased gravity resisting the pull of the sinkhole, holding Crasher’s memories a little tighter in their orbit.
Crasher shimmies and pulls himself up and across the sphinx’s claw, suffers through the mad suction howling over the summit till he gains the lip of the mountain’s crest, just barely. Hand-over-hand, he climbs down, clawed at by the black hole’s hurricane grasp.
He doesn’t think he can make it, can’t escape the hungry oblivion that he’s tempted by, but the way back is downhill, and the physics seem to be turning to his side. But they turn again and the black hole is relentless. Crasher starts feeling the drag, sees his hands scraped bloody moving backwards over glass and rusted rebar. It doesn’t look good, but he claws and fights for every inch he loses to save what he’s got, because dead or not, he’s got a new very best friend to look out for.
When all seems lost, when he’s nearly back at the summit, his searching hands find something coarse and taut. He sees a memory, watches it float away like a photograph in the wind, his little girl shimmying up a rope, a rope that’s somehow in his hand, that weaves all the way back to the flatlands like a mountaineer’s lifeline. And then the memory is gone, digested by the island’s dark heart.
He doesn’t know where the rope came from, but he knows he’s got a good grip on it. And as he climb his way down the trash mountain he decides that the rope was left for him by all those who came before and turned back, just like him.
He builds a small lean-to not far from the beach where he first woke up as Crasher, as the man with the aneurysm-head. He greets Harold Hoyt every morning, cooks beans over a driftwood fire each and every night, finding that he can just taste them if he pours them into his vapor. Most of his living-life is gone, the majority of his prior memories swallowed by the sink hole. But his new dead-life has a present, is building, memory upon memory of his time on the island accumulating into a personality, a set of expectations for the world. He doesn’t expect much, aside from the expired beans he finds, aside from the hordes of stuffies who have some affinity towards him, who share his soft patch of sand in a dogpile each night.
Somehow a long hermit-beard manages to sprout from his blood-mist, giving what stands as his head the appearance of a stoplight tangled in Spanish moss. It is, on the whole, a better look for him. It is, on the whole, a better existence than wandering the isle.
He decides to start recording the progression of the sun and moon, unknowingly recreating the concept of days. He scratches them away on the walls of his lean-to, then, when he runs out of space, on the lean-to walls of other islanders, teaching them in turn, the concept of days.
The stuffies that snuggle him at night begin to stay into the morning, begin to take notice of what he does and how he does it. They watch him decide that the stars make constellations, that lost and undiscovered fish can be caught on lines, that the near docile dodos and aurochs that march across the crumpled dunes of Haunted Plum Island can be made more docile, that the ravenous John Franklin expedition can be resisted by strength of numbers and some dingos on loan.
Over countless years Crasher develops a way of speaking through his hands. He teaches it to the stuffies, who teach it to each other, who learn to bond and help. Crasher does what Jimmy Hoffa never could and gets into a brief gang war. He unites the stuffies, who bring about a small, respectable stuffy civilization, with him at the center: a wise old god. They begin to call him Star-Head with warm reverence, and Crasher thinks that it is an okay thing to be called.
Star-Head tries to be a benevolent god. He preaches law. He preaches kindness. He instructs the stuffies to forgive the children who left them under hotel beds, the parents that sent them into goodwill boxes and city dumps. He instructs them to welcome the newly lost and recite the Lord’s Prayer for them. He instructs them to never cut the head off anyone. He instructs them to always avoid the very heart of Haunted Plum Island because it is a place of nothing. But he also tells them to acknowledge the very heart of Haunted Plum Island, because while nothing is painful, it is a great starting point for something. He tells them to record none of this. He tells them to remember the spirit of what he has said and adjust it accordingly when things change.
One brilliant morning Star-Head decides that it is time for him to move on. He gathers the stuffies and shows them a miracle. From inside the center of his hairy blood-misthead he pulls out the sodden cranium of Ruggles the Prayer Bear. The stuffy congregation ooooohs and aaaaaahs. Star-Head tells them that they have always been with him, that they will always be with him, that this little bear head is the true soul of their god, and that they should aspire to be like themselves now, and not him.
Star-Head departs into a blue dusk, with the laments and adulations of his children clinging to his back, pulling then releasing the magnificent salt-soaked dreads of his eternal, inexplicable beard. And overhead the stars he charted and named twinkle in their cosmic spill, a dusty band bisecting the sky into blue and darker blue. And as his star-head reaches and dips below the horizon, the stuffies remember it as a sun.
Star-Head buries Ruggles in the sand as Scott Hutchison-by-the-Sea is passing by on his yearly three day pilgrimage, his melancholy brogue merging with the babbling surf to serenade the burial. Star-Head stares out into the soft gray day and wonders how such sad words can feel so hopeful. How a dark thing can glow so bright. A remnant thought from his living-life knocks on the door of his mind, tells him that the light that bends at the edges of black holes is hot and bright.
He wishes Ruggles could have seen more of the world than the underside of a bed in San Francisco. That is his one regret. But he knows he did not abandon the little bear. All he can do now is release his dead.
When Ruggles is buried and resting, when his own grave in the sand is poorly excavated and crumbling in at the sides, Star-Head pulls a bottle from inside the handy tangle of his beard. There is a note in the bottle, the three most important things he was able to save from the sinkhole, unearthed during their brief tilt. It is a list of three names: Martin, Casey, Cadence. Over and over. He holds the message-in-a-bottle to his chest, to the place where his heart beats, and tosses it out to sea.
He starts to moan his own last rites but stops, remembers that they were read to him long ago by a little brown bear. Star-Head plunges his hands into his mist and extinguishes the star that resides there. The blood-vapor condenses and splashes into his shallow grave, christening the thoughtless body left behind.