It was somewhere or sometime in 1974. A five year old sits in the back seat, just behind the passenger seat. An odd, dark beige which would otherwise be found nowhere near good and decent people, this inexplicably pockmarked plastic covered the seats with the blemishes of hundreds of handprints from its many passengers. It was a classic VW beetle, triumphant in exterior yellow splendor, its loud mechanical hummingbird engine vibrating through the seats and floorboard.
It was a familiar car, more specifically a family car. It belonged to Roger, my mother's younger brother, who I strangely hadn't seen in several weeks. And, suddenly, we were in it. My dad sat behind the wheel, right hand expertly finessing the rounded knob from first to second, third, fourth, no hint of a grind or a shudder. The car acted like it belonged to him, but that still seemed strange.
"Mom?" the five year old me asked, struggling to wrap his head around this weird set of facts. "Why are we driving Uncle Roger's car?"
There was a bit of silence, which the grownup me realizes was awkwardness at how to explain this new shift in reality to the five year old me.
"Uncle Roger is... gone," came the reply.
"Gone? Gone where?"
"Just.... he's gone, honey."
The little hummingbird engine kept on thrumming for several more moments while five year old me stared into the unyielding dimples of the back of the passenger seat. It looked like thousands of tan and tiny golf balls had been skinned for the purposes of the car's interior.
"Will he want his car again when he gets back?"
"He isn't coming back, honey. He... he was rafting on the American river with some friends and it flipped over, and... he died."
A five year old's brain is strangely wired. It's a lot of images and otherwise incoherent concepts, all connected with dental floss and those flat squares of gum that come in the packs of Star Wars collectable cards. So, in my little five year old brain, I pictured one of those yellow inflatable rafts, my uncle Roger sitting right in the center, paddling furiously as the raft wobbled towards the frothing inevitability of a waterfall.
In the back of my mind, the song played: "Marshall, Will and Holly..."
Over the falls....
In the Land.... of the Lost.
And it all just kind of made sense to me, then. Roger wasn't really GONE gone. My uncle was in that hollow-earth fairytale world below the world, standing off against the Sleestaks and fighting animatronic and stop-motion dinosaurs. I never really mentioned this. I suppose I somehow understood that the idea of my uncle going toe-to-toe with a raging T-rex was probably pretty silly. And yet, it gave me comfort.
It's been some forty four years now, since that innocent delusion. Recent events have made me flip back to that old page, though, and I'm wondering how he's getting on down in the land literally down under, and though I'm sure his hair and beard are long and grizzled, but after years of living on an ACTUAL paleo diet, I'm sure he'd be pretty damn ripped, like some sort of Jurassic Park Sean Connery.
Death... it's just a weird thing. There's no real answer to what it is, what it does, or any of that. And the past year have been....well, dramatically shaken by it. My father, my grandmother, and even Karma, my old feline writing companion. I thought it'd been bad with David Bowie, and Prince, but then 2017 rolled up on my lawn, and the hits just kept on coming. It's made me look a lot closer at death than I previously had, and for a guy who wrote a whole 6-book series on an 11-year old angel of death and is halfway through a series literally called the Tales of the Dead Man, you'd think I already thought about it enough. Clearly the universe didn't think so, and here we are.
Death, death, death. It's right there, lingering at the fringes of every book, after every chapter, every page, paragraph and period. What's next? Silence? The Great Void? The Blink? I don't have all the answers. And, believe me, I've been looking.
Then again, I've always felt like it's the search that matter. The journey, the quest - the light at the end of the tunnel can be the train, or wherever it needs to be. Maybe it's really just the Land of the Lost, but that's really just another adventure anyway, and that metaphor is good enough for me.
Someday, maybe I'll find my way down there, too, and together we'll keep the Altrusians safe, maintain a proper alliance with the Sleestaks, and keep looking for that elusive way home.
Until then. Keep out a watchful eye, Roger. We'll keep on "Slug-Bugging", and we'll always miss you. Wherever you've gone, we know you're not really lost. None of us. Not really.