The Stranger

The Stranger

Ethel Hempstock sold her name. She hated her name since the day she learned to speak it. And when she asked her father what her middle name was he said to ask her mother. When Ethel brought the question to her mother she simply replied that Ethel Hempstock was her full name and she saw no need to muddle it.

They just get in the way, dear.

So any hopes Ethel had of going by a middle name were dashed and any names she tried to apply to herself never seemed to stick. Odd, the power names have over us, given that we are not the ones who choose them. Some days all she would do would be to lie on her back in the forest and come up with new names she wished she had. Wonderful fantastic names would come to her like Penelope Sweetwater, Clara Bellview, Sweet Briar Rose, or Rapunzel even. Anything would have been preferable to the horrendous, mundane title she was stuck with.

Ethel was not a stunning beauty, but neither was she ugly. Yet she became convinced that her very name had locked her into becoming who she was. Over time, her name became the poison root of all her misfortunes. She became obsessed with the notion that even if she looked the same, a different name would make her more desirable.

She prayed in the woods to every god and monster whose name she could remember from stories, pleading for the blessing of a new name – of a new life. Even to the cruel trickster gods she begged, those who relished in giving us exactly what we ask for. Sometimes our prayers are answered.

One day, as she howled to the heavens her prayers were interrupted by a stranger. Startled by the sudden presence of another soul in her sacred place, the place she was sure only she could find, Ethel rose to her feet unsure of how to greet the stranger. The figure was dressed in a wool cloak with a square patch on the hood. Though the stranger’s face was concealed, the voice that came from it was unmistakably female.

So you wish to sell your name, eh girl?

I…yes, I want a new name, a new life. I hate my name.

Hate? Oh this is no good, no good for you. I happen to carry just what you desire.

You can give me a new name?

It can be so that all who know you shall forget your name ever was at all, tearing it from this world. But such a gift, it has a price of course, like anything of value, and a name is a very precious thing indeed, yes girl?

Not mine.

Yet your new name would be, yes?

Oh yes, please, please. But…I don’t have anything to trade.

You are offering to sell your name, this is more than fair. So what price does this one name?

What? All I want is a new name, to be rid of the thing once and for all.

So then you offer a trade, as I say. A name for a name then. What is the name you own?

Ethel, but I want it to be Penelope Sweetwater or-

Your full name, and you may not simply choose a name, you did not choose the first one after all. A name has power, is a promise of who you are and a hint of who you shall become. Call a rose a tulip, but you shall taste the lie.

Oh. This was disappointing to her but she couldn’t think of any name worse than hers. She said, what will my new name be then?

I cannot say.

But, don’t you know?

I cannot say, but I have a name, for a name.

Well anything is better than Ethel Hempstock.

You offer up this name and understand once it is stripped from you it shall be forever?

Yes, so…

The stranger pulled a small container from under the cloack and said, Drink half of this liquid and poor the other half onto the fire. You must sleep tonight amongst the nameless trees. When you wake, you shall be known as Ethel Hempstock no longer.

And you can’t tell me what my new name is?

I cannot say.

Well that’s silly, how will I even know that it worked then?

You will know. You will know your name as you know it now, but like everyone else you will no longer remember the name which was sold. Your old name shall be less than dust.

Good riddance. Thank you so much, Ms…Miss…Oh my, how rude, I never even asked your name.

No. You never do.

Then the stranger made to leave but Ethel stopped her.

Wait, she said, who are you, why are you doing this for me?

The stranger paused but did not turn back, then said, Because you asked for it.

 

Night seemed to come on far too slow and Ethel took out the leather cask the strange woman gave to her. She had the fire built and ready hours early and considered heading back home to let her parents know she would be sleeping among the trees so they wouldn’t worry. Then she thought perhaps that might cause them to worry more and so in the end decided it was better not to risk it, just in case. Something special had started here in her clearing, and she didn’t want to leave until it was finished. Her parents could yell at her when she returned in the morning and they could call her new name loud and repeatedly as they did. When they were upset with her, her parents had a habit of calling her by her full name, which was how she knew when she was really in for it. She only hoped sleeping out here would be enough.

She spent the rest of the time before sunset holding the cask and wondering what her new name would be – so many wonderful possibilities. Though there were also some pretty bad ones out there she’d prefer not to have. She started thinking of some truly terrible names, but surely she would not get stuck with anything worse than the one she had now.

Yet as the sun began to set and she lit the fire, she started having her first real doubts, started feeling a little scared. Had she, in her haste, made a mistake? Yes it was true that she hated her name, had always hated her name, but it was hers. Her mother was so proud of it. The perfect name, she called it, too perfect even for a middle initial which stood for nothing. The she thought how her name had done her no good, been nothing but trouble, gotten her made fun of and dismissed. It was all the name, right? The trouble, she decided, was that her mother had named a baby and she was becoming a woman now, should rightly be able to name herself. Though she realized at that thought, she wouldn’t actually be naming herself. Just another stranger naming a stranger. She had no say in it, all over again.

Of course whatever title befell her it would have to be better than her old name, which she’d hated so much for so long. Though all at once, as she gazed into the flickering flames, she couldn’t seem to recall why she hated her name, only that she hated it and always had. Then she realized she couldn’t even remember what her name was, which frightened her.

She tasted something sour on her lips and when she wiped at her mouth her hand came away with red liquid on it. The cask was in her left hand, with the plug removed, it was half the weight it’d been earlier, though the girl couldn’t remember having drunk any of it. She tried so hard to recall her name but it had been burned away. It was as though she had never glimpsed her reflection and was trying to recall the appearance of her face. She attempted to comb through scrapbook of memories in her mind but it were as if, after finding only broken mirrors, she’d gone desperately to photos of her only to find she’d vanished from all of them. Maybe not even removed, just blurred beyond recognition, as though the image were out of focus. There she stood in all the memories and everybody else there appeared clear, with their names singed over their visage. She was now a stranger in her own memories, and she no longer knew herself at all.

It was a terrible feeling, an emptiness which pained her very existence. Just to make it end, she turned the cask over the fire and watched the red liquid turn the fire many different colors as it crackled and hissed over the pyre. Then she slept among the trees, a long dreamless slumber.

 

When she woke the fire was out and birds were singing. She heard a noise, a voice nearby, and stood to great the stranger. It was only then she remembered why she was sleeping in the woods.

She had a new name. She felt the name, could see it but could not seem to say it, her mouth for some reason refusing to voice the word aloud. What is happening, she wondered? And what was so awful about her old name again that she would give it away like loose change to the first beggar who asked.

That was when she realized she was wearing the cloak with a square patch on the hood, and it was then she recognized the voice of the girl in the woods, praying for a new name.

Elephant-Fantasy-ARt-728x409

Elephant in the Room

Elephant in the Room…we need to talk about the elephant in the room, she said, after the long silence between sips of tea, which felt like an eternity.

What elephant, he asked, looking up from his book?

That elephant!

He looked where she was pointing, and in corner of the kitchen stood a fully grown elephant. The elephant stood facing them and as he and the man locked eyes, the man’s first thought was that the creature looked somehow familiar. They had a decent sized kitchen but the pachyderm took up nearly a third of it and he couldn’t believe he’d failed to notice it.

How long has that fucking thing been there?!

Come on now, she said. You’re not going to pretend you haven’t noticed it.

Of course I didn’t! Don’t you think I’d of said something? How long has it been there?

How long? Hmm, I don’t even really know, a couple of weeks, maybe even a month or two now that I think about it.

What?!

Well I mean it’s not like the type of thing you mark on the calendar, she said. She looked down into her cup of tea and said softly, I don’t like thinking about it.

Oh. Well, okay honey, let’s just forget it’s even there, and until we can get it all straightened out we’ll just have to pretend everything is as it should be.

How long…

Until it is again.

Yeah, I suppose that’s probably for the best.

The elephant made a snorting noise and stomped a foot. Neither the man nor the woman paid it any mind.

The man’s phone began to buzz on the table, he looked at it, then silenced it. She asked who it was and he said it was nothing, then shut it off.

The elephant stomped its foot and seemed to clear its nose and throat all at once. It appeared restless.

No, she asked again, who was that?

Hm? Nobody, just work and there’s no way I’m going in today. He reached his hand across the table and rested it on hers. This is our day.

She knew it wasn’t work. She wasn’t sure she cared anymore.

Oh, alright, she said. So then what do you want to do?

No idea. Whatever you want, sweetie.

She took a sip of tea and thought for a long time, it felt like an eternity. Then she took another sip of tea, and said…

 

 

Dried Leaf2

To Love a Dried Leaf


She was already a dried leaf when they met and time did not improve her condition. He could not say how much time passed, the clock face showed no signs of change.

The wind brought them together on a cool autumn day, when the world smelled of rotting leaves, pumpkin pie, and just a hint of snow somewhere off in the distance. She drifted towards him on the breeze and he caught her in his arms. From that first touch he knew how delicate he must be with her, for fear she might crumble in the palms of his hands.

That fragility was nothing new. We all go through things in our lives and for some it strengthens them, the way a young tree strengthens itself standing against strong winds. However, some of us more closely resemble panes of glass, with each blow splintering and weakening us until eventually we shatter.

Though brittle, she was still mostly whole, with only a few fragments missing here and there. It was a she, he decided, or guessed really, she never did say. He cradled her in his arms and without daring to consider his actions he ran his finger lightly along frail skin. She felt like old paper. She said nothing in protest, and so he continued…

That was all too often how their relationship went – she said nothing, and so he continued on. He was happy, in a way, but realized that his joy stemmed from the lack of conflict – that one ever-present force, making life infinitely more interesting.

As with almost any absence, his heart grew fonder of old conflict and he craved it. No matter though, one would have better odds getting a wall to argue back, and the more he reflected upon it the more obvious the issue became. The thing that drew him to her –the mystery- was really nothing more than a complacent silence. He saw now how he’d made all the decisions and she’d just been carried along.

Seasons change though, and so does everything else. Her silence was fun, at first. He enjoyed being the focus of the spotlight for a change, feeling heard and feeling interesting. Whenever he asked her any personal questions, or even made a lame family tree joke, she always just held that blank look and wouldn’t say a thing. This was all cute and humorous until it wasn’t.

Women are like snowflakes, he came to realize, they may all have intricacies which define them as unique but in the end they’re all still snowflakes. They all melt and they all freeze.

After a time he grew to hate the sound of his own voice, droning on and on like a telephone ringing incessantly in an empty house. Eventually, after he got tired of all the games he resorted to screaming at the leaf, attempting to break through, his shouts causing her to shake. Once in a fit of rage and frustration he yelled that he didn’t even know what they were still fighting for, why he still held her when she shook. Still neither of them budged.

Then the winds shifted again.

He didn’t know if he’d just been waiting for the weather to change but decided that he needed to act, while he was still fortunate enough to have the wind at his back and the sun on his face. He began to cry then, understanding this was it. He lifted the leaf, pulling her close. As a tear splashed against the paper skin it fell into the groove of the spine and traced the same path his finger had upon their first meeting. He closed his eyes and kissed her and said the only things that would come to mind.

I’m sorry. I love you. Then he thought what a shame it was how often he’d said those two sentences together.

Then the breeze picked up and as he felt the wind pulling at her he forced himself to let go. As his grip on her slackened, the wind which had once delivered her to him carried her away just as easily. When he looked up she was gone and he was still in the same place. He could not say how much time had passed, the clock face showed no signs of change.

Winter would come first, but spring would surely follow.

 

 

Story was inspired by the short fiction of Etgar Keret and Haruki Murakami, as well as a large autumn leaf found near our home, which looked strangely out of place in the spring. Still have the crumbling thing and it’s still beautiful.

The Gateway

Off the Rails

 

“Trains never disappear.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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Long before I ever met Will Davis, I heard the story of the train that vanished. The train went in one end of a tunnel but never came out the other side, so everyone has their own theory, and until some explanation is given each is as valid as the next. Perhaps I’ve been among the patients too long and some of the crazy has rubbed off on me during my stay here, but I’m convinced I’ve finally figured it out.

Picture for a moment an ant sealed inside a paper cube, surrounded on six sides by impenetrable white walls. Now to the ant there seems to be no way out, no perceivable way in its mind for the borders to be breached. The interior of the box is all there is. However to we higher dimensional beings the solution appears so obvious, so simple: just step outside of the cube and it’d be fine, free to step back inside any time it wished. Now let’s extrapolate that one step further and think of ourselves trapped within the boundaries of time and space, prisoners of the present. Would it not be possible to imagine that stepping outside of these restricting parameters could be as simple as the ant escaping its box? My theory is just that. That this is what happened to the train which in 1869, shortly after the pounding of the golden spike, vanished with over one hundred passengers aboard. The ant escaped the cube.

The key to it all, in my mind, is the rock the tunnel was cut through. Though the project was much too far along to cease construction, it was noted that within the core of the rock there were strange magnetic occurrences. Workers grew sick and complained of pains, some even suffered strokes or brain hemorrhages after prolonged shifts. There were numerous accounts of metals moving on their own, and even one death as the result of a worker being in the way when a large hammer and some spikes seemed to propel themselves off the ground and pinned the man against a rock wall. At the time most workers attributed these occurrences to ghosts but grumbled to one another it was somehow the foreman’s fault.

There were more than a fair number of grievances and several more injuries – most unreported – but jobs were not easy to come by and most every man on the crew had hungry mouths depending on them. Eventually they punched through the other side of the rock and the rest of the job laying tracks, while physically draining, was easy in comparison. Though some of the men were drifters, – and it was not unheard of for one or two to simply not show up one day – a total of fifty laborers vanished without a trace constructing what came to be known as The Gateway. Stranger still, most of these men were reported to have shown up for a shift and went into the tunnel, but never appeared again back at the worker’s camps, some leaving behind what few possessions they’d clung too. An old man appeared in the tunnel one day, and was raving about other worlds and warned all the men to flee before the Owl came for them. This facility wasn’t up and running then but he was sent somewhere very similar. The tales reached far beyond the labor camps and before long the place had quite the reputation.

While the gateway was far enough away from heavily populated areas, occasionally a drifter would wander across it or a group of kids would dare one of their own to cross through the pitch black passageway. For though the tunnel was planned to cut straight through, it was long and bent quite a bit in the middle. Warped to the point where, looking in from either end, you could see no light at the end of the tunnel. Most children who accepted the dare made it part of the way through and ran back, while a brave few made it through to the other side, shaken but fine otherwise. Liam Davis was not so fortunate.

Liam always tagged along with his older brother William and his friends. Despite Will’s protests, their mother’s insistence always won out. Liam was sworn to secrecy hundreds of times and tattling was discouraged with threats, ranging from simple beatings to disgusting middle-aged torture techniques, most of which Liam was convinced his brother learned just to impress his friends. After Liam remained silent following an accidental fire the boys started with cigarettes, Will had to know he didn’t need to scare Liam in order to keep him quiet. Yet each time he joined the older boys there were gruesome new acts described in detail, should he dare to fall out of line. Liam knew his brother was harmless and suspected likewise of his friends. He didn’t really mind being their verbal punching bag, was just pleased to be included.

His friends got used to the tag along, but of course they still preferred when they could get away without Will’s younger brother. On the day Liam entered the Gateway, he caught Will along with his friends Charles and Teddy – two boys who looked like Laurel and Hardy, or a before and after weight loss photo – attempting to push the car from the house before starting it. While this technique worked without alarming the boy’s mother, it was not as successful when it came to young Liam. He caught up to them as they neared the main road a quarter mile from Will and Liam’s home.

Come on! Every time, Teddy said.

Go to the house, Liam, said Will.

No, listen, I –

Not this time, just go back.

Why? Liam asked, smiling. What are you guys doing?

Something too dangerous for brats and I aint takin another whoopin cause you got a scratch.

Fine, you’ll just get beat for leaving me, and for taking the car.

She knows about the car, Will lied. Plus I can handle those whoopins if it comes to it. If I hurt mommas little baby though? Hell, I may as well just put a fire out with my bare ass.

Teddy and Charles laughed but the two brothers remained staring at one another, speaking wordlessly as only siblings can. Whatever silent communication took place worked in Liam’s favor, for the next moment Will did a total about-face. This was the usual routine and was no surprise to his two companions.

Fine but you do whatever I say and I mean it, Will said. You speak when spoken to and if you breathe a word to momma, I’ll cutcha belly open, hook your guts up to a crank and slowly pull out your insides.

Charles and Teddy laughed again, adding their own unimaginative torture techniques. Liam couldn’t stop smiling as he climbed into the car and took off with the three older boys. He rubbed the coin he wore around his neck and thought of driving with their father.

The tunnel wasn’t too far from the Davis property and in just over an hour they were approaching the massive stone monolith the Gateway cut through. The rock the tracks went through were gargantuan, a mountain of stone which resembled a sleeping giant. The Gateway’s dark opening was large enough to swallow freight trains but it appeared as no more than a mole upon the face of a Titan. Knowing the amount of stone bearing down over you was one of the things which made the long walk in the dark so terrifying. The road met the tracks a ways away from the tunnel, so the boys parked the car as far off to the side as they could and closed the remaining distance on foot.

The closer the boy’s got to the mouth of the Gateway the slower their footsteps became. The eagerness which Liam felt coming off the older boys in waves as they jumped from the car gave way to something he was less familiar with, fear.

What is this place, anyways? Liam asked his brother.

He knew what it was of course, had heard all the same tales and spook stories the other boys had but thought talking about it might help. Had the topic of discussion been anything else he may well have been correct.

It’s called the Gateway. Some fools claim hell lies in the middle, others say that it’s actually heaven and you can see the light of angels. I even heard a story once that the devil himself waits in there, dancing with the dead, and if you see them you have to join in.

It’s the truth, said Teddy defensively. My brother told me so.

Charles and Will laughed and a half second later Liam joined in.

Okay, said Liam, so what do you think is really in there?

I don’t know. Wager it’s nothing but a train tunnel. Haven’t been in it yet though, have I?

So we’re really going in there?!

Yes, we’re really going in, Will said, gesturing to Charles, Teddy and himself.

Aw, come on. God, I swear –

No.

But I never –

No! Not even a chance. Just be lucky we let you come.

Besides, Charles said, somebody has to stay back and be on train lookout, that’s the most important job.

No it’s not.

Hell it ain’t, son. You don’t shout a warning our way and we’ll all get smashed in the dark. Then there goes your ride home. So keep a real good eye towards the east there, and if you see so much as a sliver of what might be smoke, you shout. You better yell loud too, otherwise I swear I’ll haunt your ass.

And miss dancing with the devil?

Charles laughed a little. He’ll have to wait for pretty old me.

Wait though, couldn’t you two just watch while the other goes?

Shut up, Liam.

They walked the last stretch without talking and then the four of them stood in silence. A different silence followed Liam’s next question.

So, who’s first?

After a short time Will pulled a small piece of chalk from his pocket, twirling it between his fingers as he spoke.

Alright, so we each go in alone, as far as we can, and when you decide to head back you just take this and make a mark on the wall. I’ll do a triangle, Charles you do a circle and Teddy you make an 8. Whoever gets the farthest gets the rest of that whiskey, fair?

They all nodded in agreement, even Liam. The boy thought how there was no real way to see who’d gone the farthest. Despite needing a lantern to check, somebody could simply walk thirty feet in where they couldn’t be seen and sit a spell, until they got up and returned claiming they’d ventured the furthest. The incentive wasn’t all that special either. None of it truly mattered though, since any time one of the boys managed to snag any liquor or tobacco or anything else, they all shared it. All but Liam, of course.

So he played his part, keeping watch for the rare sight of a train approaching and one by one Charles, Teddy, and lastly Will took their turns venturing as deep as they dared into the abyss. As far as who actually went the longest distance from the entrance they couldn’t know for sure, but Will took the most time by far and none of the others dared challenge his honesty. The other two returned at a brisk pace but when Will at last emerged he was jogging and his forehead and top were drenched in sweat, his eyes frantic. As he caught his breath and drank some water, Will kept looking back towards the darkness. Teddy seemed excited and inquired in serious tones if he saw the devil or angel lights or ghosts, while Charles just stood there waiting. Liam cut through the noise with the right question.

So, how far did you get?

The worry faded some from Will’s eyes as he began to brag of how deep he’d ventured.

Towards the end I kept expecting to come out the other side, but I never even saw the light. The dark fools you into thinking you’ve walked farther than you have. That, or somehow it’s bigger on the inside.

Did you see my mark, asked Teddy?

Yeah, he laughed, about ten steps in. And Charles, yours wasn’t that far past his. Must say I was a little let down, could still see both of your marks from the glow of the entrance. Hell, Liam probably would’ve gone farther than you two cowards.

Coward was a step too far for Teddy, who got defensive when you said his hair looked bad.

Fine, Teddy said, let’s find out then. Go ahead, Liam, show us cowards how the big Davis men do it. Just try not to run away like ya daddy did. At the mention of his father, Liam fingered the smooth coin around his neck.

Will could throw every curse and insult your way and you knew you were fine but when he went silent, that was when you knew to worry. Liam recognized that deadly silence and ignored the slight.

Let me go, Will. I bet I can beat him, just watch.

Will just shook his head and kept staring at Teddy, who was doing his best to keep staring right back.

Please.

Come on, Will. Just let the kid do it, Charles said. Like you said, we didn’t make it too far so it’ not likely he’s gonna.

Maybe you didn’t get that far but I swear –

Shut up Teddy, it don’t matter. So I’m saying, Will, even if he makes it near our marks without running back here like a baby first – which I doubt – he’ll still be right back like we was. Besides, somebody’s gotta check to make sure you ain’t just bullshitting us, right, and now we got a volunteer. So go ahead little man, show us how it’s done.

Liam was so eager to bolt into the dark he almost leapt at Charles’s words, but he knew enough to look to his brother for final say on any and all things.

Will finally moved his gaze from Teddy. Yeah, alright fine. Just make it quick and if you hear anything, anything that even sounds like us yelling, you run back here fast as you can. Ya hear me?

Liam nodded, smiling. Finally, he would be able to prove himself. The boy’s smile was infectious and Will couldn’t help but return it. He mussed his brother’s hair and punched him lightly in the arm.

Okay, just hurry it up and hey, you mind me now, don’t go too far. You ain’t got nothing to prove to nobody, especially not assholes like these. Hear me?

Uh huh.

Here ya go then, be careful, or it’s my ass. And if I have to take one more whooping cause of you, I’ll cut you open, squeeze out your balls and suffocate you with your own little sack.

Liam took the piece of chalk from his older brother and headed towards the dark. He turned back and asked, Is that a real one? Can you really suffocate somebody with their sack?

The other two were laughing but Will just smiled and said, Take care or we’ll have to find out.

Liam’s smile held until the shadows consumed him, then little by little eagerness and determination gave way to fear.

Though Liam was alone in that tunnel, his brother knew every detail of his venture. When finally he opened up to me and shared this tale, I knew he spoke the truth, I only wish I understood how he could know. I have heard of twin’s having psychic links, and there is of course much in this world we do not yet understand. At first I suspected it was more wish fulfillment for closure on the part of William, rather than anything supernatural or magical. Then again, I am a man without a brother, and perhaps it is that simple. It has been decades since the day they entered that tunnel on a dare, but Will’s account of his brother’s trek remains unchanged. I put it down here now as he has always told it.

The further he walked, the darker it became, until the empty space seemed to shrink and he felt the unseen walls closing in around him. The Gateway was the same size all the way through, he knew this and kept reminding himself of it. But when fear takes hold what we know doesn’t always matter, and despite his inner reassurances he felt more and more claustrophobic with each step. The air was noticeably cooler and the smell of desert flowers faded slowly. He resisted the urge to look back. It was like the ‘don’t look down’ advice which was supposed to help with heights. Liam knew if he looked back and saw how far he was from any light that he would either freeze or flee.

On he went into the dark and as blackness embraced him, visions bloomed in his mind; Visions of crazy old men and killers crouched, cloaked in shadows, waiting. From the formless, formed subterranean monsters with oversized teeth and grotesque claws, hungry for children, and the darker it became the clearer these terrors were. Vivid images seemed to populate the void. Liam’s pace slowed a bit and he began wincing with each half step that he took, fully expecting to bump into a butcher or some hairy sharp-toothed reptile so large it had to crouch to fit in the tall cavern. He could see it so clear, bent over with its yellow teeth dripping saliva and its nose shifting and twitching as it gathered the scents of its oncoming meal. He could almost smell it.

To help assure himself the tunnel wasn’t shrinking he reached his shaking hand out and placed it against the rock wall as he went. To drive the phantasmagoric images from his mind he began reciting a little mantra from a story his mother used to tell him. It was his favorite because it had a story within the story. In the tale, there is a young man who must travel through the dark cursed woods alone in order to retrieve medicine that would save his dying mother. The boy heard tales all his life of the wicked things which live beyond the village, knew it is common knowledge that there were creatures lurking all around him as he went. The woods above were so thick they blocked out the moonlight, and the lamp he brought with him contained so little fuel that he was forced to travel with it off, save for occasions when he absolutely must illuminate the abyss swirling around him. With each step in the dark, the familiar noises of branches breaking and leaves crunching underfoot all became more alien and threatening to his ears, filling his mind with visions of all the horrid predators standing just before him. To keep his mind occupied, the young boy began repeating words his mother taught him from an ancient story. A tale of a brave dragon slayer, who himself used the words to draw strength as he approached the mouth of the dragon’s lair. The memory of these timeless words caused Liam to stand up just a little straighter as he repeated them in his own mind.

Don’t fear shadows in your track, walk on through them, don’t look back. Again and again and again he repeated these words. The words echoed so loud in his head that they began escaping his mouth in mumbled whispers. Just as they had empowered the young man, and the dragon slayer before him, now little Liam Davis too drew strength from them. He walked on with renewed confidence, as he heard the words in his head pounding like a war drum pushing him onwards, a beacon shining in him, fending off the dark. He almost wanted to bump into whatever vile creature would dare block his path. Almost. The fear, though diminished, was of course still there. It whispered of threats and imminent doom but this treacherous worm was drowned out by the words reverberating in his mind like a battle cry.

Refusing to look back towards the light enabled Liam’s eyes to adjust quickly and the in that void, silhouettes of stone appeared clearer for what they were. Only a short walk into the tunnel he knew victory was his, as he passed first one then another small chalk mark on the rock wall, the white seeming to glow against the dark stone. Smiling, he went on, thinking how pathetic it was that that was as far as Charles had made it, he hadn’t expected much from Teddy. He felt grateful that he knew the story, that he possessed the words which kept him strong. How wonderful it is that make-believe can help us to deal with the unreal. Then and there Liam made up his mind; he would pass his brother’s mark as well and keep on, maybe all the way to the other side. The dark ahead looked endless, it seemed to go on forever, but he knew that it couldn’t last. He’d learned earlier than most that nothing is forever.

He got far enough that the rock felt cooler against his palm. The gateway held an aroma of dust and remnants of smoke, which he presumed must’ve been coal residue on the ceiling. The only noises in the dark were the shifting of the earth and rocks beneath his steps and the sound of his breathing. Louder than both of these, louder than the booming silence, was the drone of words beating away with a driving rhythm. Don’t fear shadows in your track, walk on through them, don’t look back. The words seemed to serve as some mystical incantation and he felt as though he had the strength to face anything. Had his father known the words from the old tale, he wondered? Surely not, for if his dad possessed the type of strength he felt now he would never have ‘run like a coward from his responsibilities’ as their mother liked to put it.

If only adults took the time and told each other stories, the way they do for children, perhaps they’d be stronger and maybe the world would be a better place. Everybody knows kids are braver than adults. The connection seems natural enough between diminishing courage that comes with aging and the depletion of stories. Stories make us stronger. Liam told himself that he cared dearly about the world being a better place and all, but the truth he felt inside was he’d watch the world burn if it meant he’d have a dad again.

Even with his eyes adjusted as well as they were, it was so dark he nearly walked right past the large white triangle mark his brother left. He wondered why Will would have turned back here, and why he’d ran all the way back. He turned and squinted his eyes, and realized there was only a fingernail sliver of light left, resembling cracked door with the sun behind it. Liam figured he had to be at least halfway through the Gateway, if not farther and the thought of actually making it all the way through to the other side was such an intoxicating idea he didn’t see how he had much of a choice at all. The endless glory, the eternal bragging rights, never having to defend tagging along again, it was all a bit too much to resist. There was a small worry of why he could not yet see light from the other side, for even though the long tunnel curved it was not by so much that this far in he should still see only dark ahead. He walked on. As he gazed forward into the abyss he felt it gazing back into him and thought he spied a ring of day light, as though some disc or perfectly spherical boulder blocked out all but a hint of the light. Unable to make sense of such a strange site, the boy shook his head to clear it away and then once again saw only a mesh of shadow. With the words to fuel him and the wall to guide him, Liam headed on past his brother’s mark further into the darkness, searching for daylight in shadows.

A pain started in his belly and then spread to his head. He repeated the words louder and louder until he was screaming them out in his mind, and though they made him feel brave they did nothing to soothe him and his nausea increased, until he fell to one knee. When he looked up again the dark shimmered before him. Liam always wore a flattened coin around his neck, a remnant from a trip with his father to the train tracks near their place. After Liam was caught too close to the tracks, his father showed him what a train could do to metal, warning his boy to keep bones and skin far away from the tracks. The piece of metal began to lift off Liam’s neck as though it were being pulled towards the shimmer, then just as quickly as it had appeared the shimmer in the darkness faded and the coin fell back against his chest. It felt much colder than it had just a few moments before. Liam still felt ill but noticed the sensation slowly fading.

The voices of his brother and mother and even his father competed in his mind, telling him it was time to stop, time to go home, that enough was enough and it was okay to head back now. After briefly considering turning back he decided to press on, feeling positive he’d almost certainly never venture this far into the Gateway again. Already he was feeling great regret at having gone as far as he had, fearing he wouldn’t have enough time to make it back should he hear a warning. If it came to it he would run for the other side and hope for the best. Mostly he felt bad thinking of Will, sure his brother must be worrying and doing his best to hide it in front of his friends, and that odd shimmer…but he pushed those thoughts from his mind and focused only on the words…don’t look back, don’t fear shadows in your tracks, walk on through them, and don’t look back. Don’t look back. Don’t. Look. Back.

The sound frightened him for a moment before he recognized it was as the sound of his own voice, and realized he was mumbling the words aloud again. They felt good on his tongue and he repeated them over again, chanting them a little louder and then a little louder still, until they were as steady as his breathing. It sounded as though he spoke them in defiance, as though it were some sacred script or a series of forbidden curse words known only by the few allowed to speak them. Words passed down from the ancients in many languages long dead, containing a mystical protective power. The boy pictured a soft glow around him in the dark, a shield against the encroaching abyss.

He was so focused on his chant and so deep into the heart of the Gateway that he did not at first even notice the noises from behind him, confusing them with the voices in his mind. Even after he recognized them for what they were he struggled to make them out. It sounded like wild howling animals warning of a predators approach. Then Will’s strong voice cut through Charles and Teddy’s screams and the single syllable word was clear.

Train, Will was shouting. Train! Train!

The word paralyzed his body but sent his mind into overdrive. He tried to focus as a thousand thoughts raced inside his head, colliding into one another, shattering into a million more. How far was he into the tunnel? There was no real way to gauge. Did he have time to make it back before the train entered or was it safer to bolt for the other side of the tunnel? There was no light in either direction now, but there did seem to be a faint shimmer in the dark behind him. Again he heard the faint echo of voices warning of a train. This time the word had the opposite effect and freed him of his motionless state. He shouted back through the dark.

Which way? Yet as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Liam realized how ridiculous they were. Will and the others had no way of knowing how deep he’d gone, so couldn’t very well suggest which direction he should run in. Will did answer however, with the same message he had been yelling.

Train! Run! This time however the calls were much clearer and louder and more frantic. Come on!

The voice was again slightly louder and clearer. Then it hit him, Will was coming after him. He hadn’t moved fast enough and now because of his hesitation, they might both die. He thought of how the coin looked before and after its encounter with a train. Knowing Will was in peril sparked his mobility and he took off running in the direction of his brother’s voice, keeping his right fingers in contact with the wall to guide him as he went.

Go back, I’m coming!

Will just kept shouting train though and didn’t seem to hear him. The sound of his warnings grew ever closer until they were just around the bend. Liam picked up his pace and ran as fast as he could, he took his hand from the wall and tripped almost immediately over one of the wood beams the tracks were laid over, falling hard.

Liam’s necklace began to lift off his chest again. He looked up as he got to his feet and saw his brother’s silhouette growing larger as he neared. Upon realizing he could see at all again drove a spike of fear into his heart as he was certain the light in the tunnel was from the train entering the Gateway, and that it was too late. Then he heard the train’s whistle and could tell from the sound that it was still a ways off.

The soft glow was the shimmer he had seen a glint of before, a little brighter now than it was at first. Liam could see through it, but despite its transparency he could still see the thing itself, like a window pane or a soap bubble. It was beautiful, like faint water colors painting over glass. Colors swirled in it and formed fragments of unfocused scenes before dissipating again. Will reached the spot on the other side of the strange wavering light and stopped. The brothers stood there sharing the briefest moment of wonder before the shimmer, like the fragile soap bubble it resembled seemed to pop out of existence, leaving the boys in darkness once more. Liam put his arm out and when nothing happened, ran through the spot where the thing had been and hugged his brother.

Let’s go, come on, Liam said.

What…what the hell was –?

The rails were vibrating harder, Liam found his brother’s hand in the dark and shouted, Come on! They could barely hear the other two boys screaming over the repeated train whistles. They started to run again towards the sound of their voices. That was when the light from the train’s headlight filled the tunnel as it entered the Gateway. They stopped and Will tightened his grip on his younger brother’s hand as Liam spoke both their thoughts out loud.

There’s no time.

Once in a book Liam read, there was a man who was trapped in a train tunnel just like them with a train approaching. In the story, the man is able to find a crevice in the rock and squeezed into it as the train sped past close enough to fray his clothes. It was all Liam could think of and a story helped him once already that day.

Quick find a space in the wall.

What?! Are you crazy?! Let’s go, Will said. We gotta run the other way. Go!

Liam tried to pull his hand away but Will tightened his grip and said, I’m serious, run the other way now or I’ll –

Shut up, we can’t! We can’t outrun a train.

He ripped his hand from Will’s strong grasp and began feeling along the cool rock for their only chance. The walls were far from smooth and along his trek he’d felt more than few large divots and hoped he could find one big enough for both of them, or else two where they could each squeeze in. Frantically he rubbed his hands over one wall.

Help me. Feel for big dips.

Will started feeling along the opposite wall. They had to scream to be heard and could no longer hear the voices outside at all, only the pounding of the train and its whistle screeching at them. It sounded like a thousand elephants led by a howling banshee. The rails were shaking so hard it caused the boys’ teeth to rattle.

Here! Over here, hurry, hurry!

Will followed his brother’s voice, waving his hands about until he found his shoulder. The moment he touched him, Liam grabbed him by the arms and pushed him back against the rocks, into a spot just large enough for him to squeeze into alone.  He went to move but his younger brother shoved him back again.

Stay, he said, sounding as if he was reprimanding a dog.

They were screaming to be heard over the train as Will tried to argue. But you-

There’s…other one…ight…ere…e fine.

Those were the only fragments Will made out before the light of the train lit up his brother’s face, revealing a look of determination and fury, but no trace of fear. Liam nodded at him and Will returned the nod. Then Liam was gone, once again feeling along the wall. Will leaned his head out slightly and saw his brother’s lips moving as he moved his hands all over the rock, as if searching for some switch to a hidden entrance. The train was barreling towards them; the sound of it echoing in the tunnel forced Will to cover his ears.

Will thought the light from the train suddenly reflected off a surface just beyond Liam, who with his focus on the wall failed to notice it. Will yelled something but couldn’t even feel the vibration of his own voice, let alone hear it.  The shimmer was back and much brighter and Liam was moving closer and closer to it, only inches away when he looked back towards his brother and the approaching train. Will pointed and Liam turned and saw the shimmer, and tilted his head as he gazed into it. Then he turned, smiling, the look of fury and determination replaced by that strange infectious grin. He spared one last look at Will and shouted something to his brother. The he smiled again, turned and walked through the light and disappeared into the shimmer. For a moment after, it appeared to burn much brighter, forcing him to look away. Then his brother and the shimmer were both gone. A bare track illuminated by the train’s light.

Before Will even had time to react to what he’d just seen or shout his brother’s name the train shot past him like a black bolt of lightning and the thunder followed. He pressed himself hard against the wall as the iron monster roared past. The train screamed in his face and Will couldn’t help howling back at it. He stood there pressed against the stone, screaming as loud as he could and not hearing it. As the end of the train passed, there was another brilliant flash of light where the shimmer manifested, and then it was gone. The train vanished around the bend and its sound slowly diminished until a still silence returned to the Gateway. Will stood in shock, wedged in the crevice his brother had found for him, his ears ringing. After a moment he dared to lean his head out again and looked where his brother last stood, and saw only nothingness. He ran to where his brother had walked into the light and felt around in the air but nothing seemed different, except that he felt slightly nauseous. He collapsed to the floor, panicking, and began to weep, crying out his brother’s name again and again and again. His voice gave out long before he did.

After both refused to go in unless the other came along, Teddy and Charles walked into the dark tunnel entrance. They called out for Will and Liam but received no response. A little deeper in they heard muffled crying and followed it to find Will, crouched in the fetal position, rocking back and forth. He was mumbling to himself nonsensically and repeating something they couldn’t recognize at first. After searching and failing to find Liam, they assumed the worst. They pulled Will to his feet and led him back towards the light.

When at last they managed to get him to speak a few words it was a cold monotone which escaped his lips. In his poor mind state, Will made the not-so-advisable decision to share with his friends exactly what he had experienced. This was also the first time he detailed word for word what Liam had experienced on his own, saying he could feel what he felt and see what he saw. Both boys figured Will had seen his brother crushed by the train and gone mad. Water was all they had to offer him in the way of consolation.

Not another word was spoken by any of them as they led him back through the desert to the parked car and drove home. To their surprise there was no protest. Will sat unblinking, eyes fixed on nothing and that was how he remained for three more days before he would even take a sip of water on his own. Despite his mother’s pleading, demanding and physical assaults he did not waiver. He was a living statue for days.

During that first week people searched best they could based on what Teddy and Charles told them. After combing the tunnel however, no traces of Liam were ever found, not one drop of blood or scrap of clothing. It was at this point that the two boys’ stories changed. Teddy told anybody who’d listen the crazy tale Will shared with them after they pulled him from the Gateway, tossing in plenty of embellishments, as if the real story weren’t fantastical enough. Charles on the other hand seemed unable to recall any part of the story. He stated only that Will was rambling when they pulled him from the tunnel but that he hadn’t paid much mind to it. He never spoke again about what happened that day and ignored anybody who asked.

To everyone’s surprise it was Will himself who stated that despite its flaws, Teddy’s account was the more accurate version. Will would do anything to find his brother, so despite Charles’s warning of what would happen, he went on and on to anybody who would listen. One day a man came to town just to hear the tale from the source firsthand. The man, it turned out, was the owner of the train which passed through the Gateway that day and was attempting to decipher a mysterious disappearance of his own. The very last train car did not arrive with the rest of the locomotive. They back-tracked the whole route but after finding no sign of it anywhere wondered how a train car vanished without a trace. After hearing about the missing boy, the man thought perhaps there was a connection. Remembering the second flash of light in the tunnel, Will sat up and listened more intently as the train’s owner described how the car connector appeared to have been severed clean through, another impossibility. It was this new development which turned Will’s despair to hope. If it opened again shortly after, then perhaps the shimmer inside the Gateway wasn’t closed forever, as he feared. Will clung to that hope. They never found any clues of what might have happened and after only a few days, trains were once again passing through the Gateway. For Will, every time he heard a distant train he imagined bulls trampling through a graveyard.

Eventually nearly everybody in the southwest knew ‘Poor Will’s story’ but let him be, mostly out of pity for his loss. The boy becoming a man couldn’t work and more than once was hauled out of the Gateway, where he was chasing trains into the tunnel and ‘trying to find the opening’. Whatever happened to his brother nobody knew for sure, but one thing was certain, that whatever happened Will never stopped blaming himself for it and never gave up his search.

About a year after Liam – and the caboose – disappeared, the passenger train with just over a hundred people aboard was seen by two ranch hands entering the Gateway. The train never came out the other side. No remains were ever found. It to date is still the only recorded incidence of a train just vanishing. The families and the public were terrified at first and infuriated once they learned the previous incident, involving a child. As a result the Gateway was decommissioned and both entrances were blown and sealed off.

Aside from the few who knew him well, most folks assumed Will would be glad nobody else would be hurt, but instead he threw a fit when he heard the news, pleading that if they did have to close it off, to do it with him inside so he would at least have a chance of seeing his brother again. The man who came to town the first time remembered Will, and it was during the damage control for the passenger tragedy that he was placed into hospitalization, after a generous donation was made to those charged with determining whether somebody was dangerous crazy or just the normal kind. He lost his mother in the years between Liam vanishing and the passenger car following suit, so without family or any real money he didn’t have much of a chance of ever getting out. And once they saw such a harmless sweet man locked up so easily, everybody followed Charles’s lead and made an effort to forget his crazy story altogether. When the passenger train – and the passengers – never turned up, there were whispers of Will being right. Unfortunately, alone in his quarters here, Will never heard them.

When I checked myself in here it was mainly for financial reasons but also because I was feeling a little overwhelmed and thought a rest would help. Will had already been here for decades and had attempted several breakouts, including one on his 65th birthday, but by the time I got here he seemed resigned to his fate. He wasn’t as keen on being alone as he used to be, but not so many people knew it. We both played a good game of chess and were well read. Once I revealed I was usually in possession of some liquor, we became friends. I paid attention to him and didn’t drool or piss myself, so I had a one up on a good number of the competition. Nor did I rudely talk to myself while he was speaking. I listened.

One late night over a game and some whiskey, I asked how somebody like him ended up in there, so he told me. I started crying when he finished, couldn’t help myself. He asked if I believed him and I told him that of course I did. He wasn’t a liar. I knew him well enough by then to know that much. I offered my help.

What could you do? he asked.

So I told him. I can get you out of here. You don’t belong here anymore than I do.

He smiled and told me he was probably too old for a jail break, old Indian.

I couldn’t help but smile back. Nothing so fun, I’m afraid.

After a long pause he seemed to understand my offer was genuine and I saw a glimmer of reserved hope return to his tired eyes. He asked if I could really help him, and I told him that I really could.

How?

Owning a hospital has more perks than just free room and board, I said.

We left the building together in the morning and ate blueberry pancakes from an old diner near the hospital that I knew well. A place called Coffee Cantata. Over breakfast, as he enjoyed his first cup of coffee, Will’s uneasiness wore off a little bit at a time until he seemed to accept this was not just some cruel jape. We discussed what came next and for Will it was a pretty single minded effort. There was only one thing he still seemed to care about, Liam.

Despite his eagerness and insistence that we just grab some sledgehammers, pickaxes and torches and head for the Gateway at once, I convinced him we needed to be better prepared.

I checked into the status of the place but also looked into which metals are magnetic, what types of rock the tunnel was cut through and several other factors I thought would prove important or at least interesting. Most fascinating though was the impact and geology records for that area.

The second night after leaving the hospital, I caught Will trying to sneak out with my car keys. I asked him why he was in such a rush, that surely after all these years he could wait a few more days. Will revealed he had a reoccurring nightmare. He told me that he’s had it ever since they sealed off the Gateway, decades prior.

In the nightmare, it is always midnight and Liam returns as the shimmer returns, Will said. He appears the same age as when he vanished, still wearing that flattened metal coin around his neck. Only seconds have passed where he went while decades passed here. Liam looks ecstatic to be back, but once the shimmer fades he is left again in the darkness of a moonless night, all alone. He manages to make it first to one end of the tunnel and then the other, only to find his escape blocked off, and with a boy’s strength and no tools he’s got no hope of breaking free. He calls for me at each sealed passageway. As he walks, the time he avoided catches up with him and he ages years at a time. He used to repeat this rhyme our mom taught him, annoyed the hell out of me and finally he got tired of me making fun of him for it – he only said it when he got scared, you see -  so he stopped saying it all the time. Even after he stopped, though, I would catch him late at night in the dark whispering it sometimes in bed. He just kept repeating it over and over in the dream, as he walked and turned from a scared young boy to a hopeless old ghost he repeated that rhyme, each time his voice growing more strained. He just kept on with that old rhyme…Don’t fear shadows in your track. Walk right through them, don’t look back.

I sent a team ahead of us without telling Will, to clear away rubble and report what they found. The image of his brother trapped and withered with age, alone in the dark catacombs was haunting. They didn’t find anything – of course they didn’t. I just needed to be sure. I just needed to know that whatever we found there, it wouldn’t be that.

We came prepared to wait. Plenty of food and water, and more than enough light. It was still well over a week before the shimmer reappeared, just after midnight. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was peeing outside the tunnel, looking up at the moonless sky and admiring the Pleiades, when I heard Will call for me and I came running with my light in hand, though I had no need of it. The shimmer was exactly as he’d described it and illuminated the tunnel with light from inside itself. Will looked at me and the smile on his face transformed him back into the young boy who, though his body remained, vanished along with his younger brother, all those years before. He was elated and looked angelic bathed in the light of the real gateway.

We have to go, come on. It doesn’t stay open for long.

I…I don’t…it’s so beautiful.

He turned back towards it, and after a second tilted his head slightly as the colors seemed to form some type of fuzzy landscape image. He turned back to me and I saw a tear in his eye as he said thank you. Then he laughed a little and walked through the shimmer. I wanted to follow him, but I didn’t. It wasn’t that I had anything keeping me here. I just never was one for riding my bike with my eyes closed, or swimming at night, if that makes any sense. But the second after I saw him vanish I knew I wanted to go and needed to move right then if I wanted to make it. I didn’t move though, I just stood there and watched the shimmer flash out, leaving the tunnel lit only by the pathetic light in my hand, the brilliance of the real gateway muted once more.

I don’t want to say how long I’ve been here waiting, it’s a little embarrassing, but some things are worth waiting for. What I will say is that I wanted there to be some record, of what really happened to Liam and Will Davis, and perhaps what happened to me, if I’m lucky enough to get a second chance.

I don’t know for sure that the shimmer will open again, but if it does, wherever it leads, I hope that it’s as beautiful as I imagine, I hope that if I tilt my head slightly that the image comes into focus for me, and I hope I get to see my friend again. I hope.

THE END

The Gateway

Off The Rails

 

                           “Trains never disappear.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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Long before I ever met Will Davis, I heard the story of the train that vanished. The train went in one end of a tunnel but never came out the other side, so everyone has their own theory, and until some explanation is given each is as valid as the next. Perhaps I’ve been among the patients too long and some of the crazy has rubbed off on me during my stay here, but I’m convinced I’ve finally figured it out.

Picture for a moment an ant sealed inside a paper cube, surrounded on six sides by impenetrable white walls. Now to the ant there seems to be no way out, no perceivable way in its mind for the borders to be breached. The interior of the box is all there is. However to we higher dimensional beings the solution appears so obvious, so simple: just step outside of the cube and it’d be fine, free to step back inside any time it wished. Now let’s extrapolate that one step further and think of ourselves trapped within the boundaries of time and space, prisoners of the present. Would it not be possible to imagine that stepping outside of these restricting parameters could be as simple as the ant escaping its box? My theory is just that. That this is what happened to the train which in 1869, shortly after the pounding of the golden spike, vanished with over one hundred passengers aboard. The ant escaped the cube.

The key to it all, in my mind, is the rock the tunnel was cut through. Though the project was much too far along to cease construction, it was noted that within the core of the rock there were strange magnetic occurrences. Workers grew sick and complained of pains, some even suffered strokes or brain hemorrhages after prolonged shifts. There were numerous accounts of metals moving on their own, and even one death as the result of a worker being in the way when a large hammer and some spikes seemed to propel themselves off the ground and pinned the man against a rock wall. At the time most workers attributed these occurrences to ghosts but grumbled to one another it was somehow the foreman’s fault.

There were more than a fair number of grievances and several more injuries – most unreported – but jobs were not easy to come by and most every man on the crew had hungry mouths depending on them. Eventually they punched through the other side of the rock and the rest of the job laying tracks, while physically draining, was easy in comparison. Though some of the men were drifters, – and it was not unheard of for one or two to simply not show up one day – a total of fifty laborers vanished without a trace constructing what came to be known as The Gateway. Stranger still, most of these men were reported to have shown up for a shift and went into the tunnel, but never appeared again back at the worker’s camps, some leaving behind what few possessions they’d clung too. An old man appeared in the tunnel one day, and was raving about other worlds and warned all the men to flee before the Owl came for them. This facility wasn’t up and running then but he was sent somewhere very similar. The tales reached far beyond the labor camps and before long the place had quite the reputation.

While the gateway was far enough away from heavily populated areas, occasionally a drifter would wander across it or a group of kids would dare one of their own to cross through the pitch black passageway. For though the tunnel was planned to cut straight through, it was long and bent quite a bit in the middle. Warped to the point where, looking in from either end, you could see no light at the end of the tunnel. Most children who accepted the dare made it part of the way through and ran back, while a brave few made it through to the other side, shaken but fine otherwise. Liam Davis was not so fortunate.

Liam always tagged along with his older brother William and his friends. Despite Will’s protests, their mother’s insistence always won out. Liam was sworn to secrecy hundreds of times and tattling was discouraged with threats, ranging from simple beatings to disgusting middle-aged torture techniques, most of which Liam was convinced his brother learned just to impress his friends. After Liam remained silent following an accidental fire the boys started with cigarettes, Will had to know he didn’t need to scare Liam in order to keep him quiet. Yet each time he joined the older boys there were gruesome new acts described in detail, should he dare to fall out of line. Liam knew his brother was harmless and suspected likewise of his friends. He didn’t really mind being their verbal punching bag, was just pleased to be included.

His friends got used to the tag along, but of course they still preferred when they could get away without Will’s younger brother. On the day Liam entered the Gateway, he caught Will along with his friends Charles and Teddy – two boys who looked like Laurel and Hardy, or a before and after weight loss photo – attempting to push the car from the house before starting it. While this technique worked without alarming the boy’s mother, it was not as successful when it came to young Liam. He caught up to them as they neared the main road a quarter mile from Will and Liam’s home.

Come on! Every time, Teddy said.

Go to the house, Liam, said Will.

No, listen, I –

Not this time, just go back.

Why? Liam asked, smiling. What are you guys doing?

Something too dangerous for brats and I aint takin another whoopin cause you got a scratch.

Fine, you’ll just get beat for leaving me, and for taking the car.

She knows about the car, Will lied. Plus I can handle those whoopins if it comes to it. If I hurt mommas little baby though? Hell, I may as well just put a fire out with my bare ass.

Teddy and Charles laughed but the two brothers remained staring at one another, speaking wordlessly as only siblings can. Whatever silent communication took place worked in Liam’s favor, for the next moment Will did a total about-face. This was the usual routine and was no surprise to his two companions.

Fine but you do whatever I say and I mean it, Will said. You speak when spoken to and if you breathe a word to momma, I’ll cutcha belly open, hook your guts up to a crank and slowly pull out your insides.

Charles and Teddy laughed again, adding their own unimaginative torture techniques. Liam couldn’t stop smiling as he climbed into the car and took off with the three older boys. He rubbed the coin he wore around his neck and thought of driving with their father.

The tunnel wasn’t too far from the Davis property and in just over an hour they were approaching the massive stone monolith the Gateway cut through. The rock the tracks went through were gargantuan, a mountain of stone which resembled a sleeping giant. The Gateway’s dark opening was large enough to swallow freight trains but it appeared as no more than a mole upon the face of a Titan. Knowing the amount of stone bearing down over you was one of the things which made the long walk in the dark so terrifying. The road met the tracks a ways away from the tunnel, so the boys parked the car as far off to the side as they could and closed the remaining distance on foot.

The closer the boy’s got to the mouth of the Gateway the slower their footsteps became. The eagerness which Liam felt coming off the older boys in waves as they jumped from the car gave way to something he was less familiar with, fear.

What is this place, anyways? Liam asked his brother.

He knew what it was of course, had heard all the same tales and spook stories the other boys had but thought talking about it might help. Had the topic of discussion been anything else he may well have been correct.

It’s called the Gateway. Some fools claim hell lies in the middle, others say that it’s actually heaven and you can see the light of angels. I even heard a story once that the devil himself waits in there, dancing with the dead, and if you see them you have to join in.

It’s the truth, said Teddy defensively. My brother told me so.

Charles and Will laughed and a half second later Liam joined in.

Okay, said Liam, so what do you think is really in there?

I don’t know. Wager it’s nothing but a train tunnel. Haven’t been in it yet though, have I?

So we’re really going in there?!

Yes, we’re really going in, Will said, gesturing to Charles, Teddy and himself.

Aw, come on. God, I swear –

No.

But I never –

No! Not even a chance. Just be lucky we let you come.

Besides, Charles said, somebody has to stay back and be on train lookout, that’s the most important job.

No it’s not.

Hell it ain’t, son. You don’t shout a warning our way and we’ll all get smashed in the dark. Then there goes your ride home. So keep a real good eye towards the east there, and if you see so much as a sliver of what might be smoke, you shout. You better yell loud too, otherwise I swear I’ll haunt your ass.

And miss dancing with the devil?

Charles laughed a little. He’ll have to wait for pretty old me.

Wait though, couldn’t you two just watch while the other goes?

Shut up, Liam.

They walked the last stretch without talking and then the four of them stood in silence. A different silence followed Liam’s next question.

So, who’s first?

After a short time Will pulled a small piece of chalk from his pocket, twirling it between his fingers as he spoke.

Alright, so we each go in alone, as far as we can, and when you decide to head back you just take this and make a mark on the wall. I’ll do a triangle, Charles you do a circle and Teddy you make an 8. Whoever gets the farthest gets the rest of that whiskey, fair?

They all nodded in agreement, even Liam. The boy thought how there was no real way to see who’d gone the farthest. Despite needing a lantern to check, somebody could simply walk thirty feet in where they couldn’t be seen and sit a spell, until they got up and returned claiming they’d ventured the furthest. The incentive wasn’t all that special either. None of it truly mattered though, since any time one of the boys managed to snag any liquor or tobacco or anything else, they all shared it. All but Liam, of course.

So he played his part, keeping watch for the rare sight of a train approaching and one by one Charles, Teddy, and lastly Will took their turns venturing as deep as they dared into the abyss. As far as who actually went the longest distance from the entrance they couldn’t know for sure, but Will took the most time by far and none of the others dared challenge his honesty. The other two returned at a brisk pace but when Will at last emerged he was jogging and his forehead and top were drenched in sweat, his eyes frantic. As he caught his breath and drank some water, Will kept looking back towards the darkness. Teddy seemed excited and inquired in serious tones if he saw the devil or angel lights or ghosts, while Charles just stood there waiting. Liam cut through the noise with the right question.

So, how far did you get?

The worry faded some from Will’s eyes as he began to brag of how deep he’d ventured.

Towards the end I kept expecting to come out the other side, but I never even saw the light. The dark fools you into thinking you’ve walked farther than you have. That, or somehow it’s bigger on the inside.

Did you see my mark, asked Teddy?

Yeah, he laughed, about ten steps in. And Charles, yours wasn’t that far past his. Must say I was a little let down, could still see both of your marks from the glow of the entrance. Hell, Liam probably would’ve gone farther than you two cowards.

Coward was a step too far for Teddy, who got defensive when you said his hair looked bad.

Fine, Teddy said, let’s find out then. Go ahead, Liam, show us cowards how the big Davis men do it. Just try not to run away like ya daddy did. At the mention of his father, Liam fingered the smooth coin around his neck.

Will could throw every curse and insult your way and you knew you were fine but when he went silent, that was when you knew to worry. Liam recognized that deadly silence and ignored the slight.

Let me go, Will. I bet I can beat him, just watch.

Will just shook his head and kept staring at Teddy, who was doing his best to keep staring right back.

Please.

Come on, Will. Just let the kid do it, Charles said. Like you said, we didn’t make it too far so it’ not likely he’s gonna.

Maybe you didn’t get that far but I swear –

Shut up Teddy, it don’t matter. So I’m saying, Will, even if he makes it near our marks without running back here like a baby first – which I doubt – he’ll still be right back like we was. Besides, somebody’s gotta check to make sure you ain’t just bullshitting us, right, and now we got a volunteer. So go ahead little man, show us how it’s done.

Liam was so eager to bolt into the dark he almost leapt at Charles’s words, but he knew enough to look to his brother for final say on any and all things.

Will finally moved his gaze from Teddy. Yeah, alright fine. Just make it quick and if you hear anything, anything that even sounds like us yelling, you run back here fast as you can. Ya hear me?

Liam nodded, smiling. Finally, he would be able to prove himself. The boy’s smile was infectious and Will couldn’t help but return it. He mussed his brother’s hair and punched him lightly in the arm.

Okay, just hurry it up and hey, you mind me now, don’t go too far. You ain’t got nothing to prove to nobody, especially not assholes like these. Hear me?

Uh huh.

Here ya go then, be careful, or it’s my ass. And if I have to take one more whooping cause of you, I’ll cut you open, squeeze out your balls and suffocate you with your own little sack.

Liam took the piece of chalk from his older brother and headed towards the dark. He turned back and asked, Is that a real one? Can you really suffocate somebody with their sack?

The other two were laughing but Will just smiled and said, Take care or we’ll have to find out.

Liam’s smile held until the shadows consumed him, then little by little eagerness and determination gave way to fear.

Though Liam was alone in that tunnel, his brother knew every detail of his venture. When finally he opened up to me and shared this tale, I knew he spoke the truth, I only wish I understood how he could know. I have heard of twin’s having psychic links, and there is of course much in this world we do not yet understand. At first I suspected it was more wish fulfillment for closure on the part of William, rather than anything supernatural or magical. Then again, I am a man without a brother, and perhaps it is that simple. It has been decades since the day they entered that tunnel on a dare, but Will’s account of his brother’s trek remains unchanged. I put it down here now as he has always told it.

The further he walked, the darker it became, until the empty space seemed to shrink and he felt the unseen walls closing in around him. The Gateway was the same size all the way through, he knew this and kept reminding himself of it. But when fear takes hold what we know doesn’t always matter, and despite his inner reassurances he felt more and more claustrophobic with each step. The air was noticeably cooler and the smell of desert flowers faded slowly. He resisted the urge to look back. It was like the ‘don’t look down’ advice which was supposed to help with heights. Liam knew if he looked back and saw how far he was from any light that he would either freeze or flee.

On he went into the dark and as blackness embraced him, visions bloomed in his mind; Visions of crazy old men and killers crouched, cloaked in shadows, waiting. From the formless, formed subterranean monsters with oversized teeth and grotesque claws, hungry for children, and the darker it became the clearer these terrors were. Vivid images seemed to populate the void. Liam’s pace slowed a bit and he began wincing with each half step that he took, fully expecting to bump into a butcher or some hairy sharp-toothed reptile so large it had to crouch to fit in the tall cavern. He could see it so clear, bent over with its yellow teeth dripping saliva and its nose shifting and twitching as it gathered the scents of its oncoming meal. He could almost smell it.

To help assure himself the tunnel wasn’t shrinking he reached his shaking hand out and placed it against the rock wall as he went. To drive the phantasmagoric images from his mind he began reciting a little mantra from a story his mother used to tell him. It was his favorite because it had a story within the story. In the tale, there is a young man who must travel through the dark cursed woods alone in order to retrieve medicine that would save his dying mother. The boy heard tales all his life of the wicked things which live beyond the village, knew it is common knowledge that there were creatures lurking all around him as he went. The woods above were so thick they blocked out the moonlight, and the lamp he brought with him contained so little fuel that he was forced to travel with it off, save for occasions when he absolutely must illuminate the abyss swirling around him. With each step in the dark, the familiar noises of branches breaking and leaves crunching underfoot all became more alien and threatening to his ears, filling his mind with visions of all the horrid predators standing just before him. To keep his mind occupied, the young boy began repeating words his mother taught him from an ancient story. A tale of a brave dragon slayer, who himself used the words to draw strength as he approached the mouth of the dragon’s lair. The memory of these timeless words caused Liam to stand up just a little straighter as he repeated them in his own mind.

Don’t fear shadows in your track, walk on through them, don’t look back. Again and again and again he repeated these words. The words echoed so loud in his head that they began escaping his mouth in mumbled whispers. Just as they had empowered the young man, and the dragon slayer before him, now little Liam Davis too drew strength from them. He walked on with renewed confidence, as he heard the words in his head pounding like a war drum pushing him onwards, a beacon shining in him, fending off the dark. He almost wanted to bump into whatever vile creature would dare block his path. Almost. The fear, though diminished, was of course still there. It whispered of threats and imminent doom but this treacherous worm was drowned out by the words reverberating in his mind like a battle cry.

Refusing to look back towards the light enabled Liam’s eyes to adjust quickly and the in that void, silhouettes of stone appeared clearer for what they were. Only a short walk into the tunnel he knew victory was his, as he passed first one then another small chalk mark on the rock wall, the white seeming to glow against the dark stone. Smiling, he went on, thinking how pathetic it was that that was as far as Charles had made it, he hadn’t expected much from Teddy. He felt grateful that he knew the story, that he possessed the words which kept him strong. How wonderful it is that make-believe can help us to deal with the unreal. Then and there Liam made up his mind; he would pass his brother’s mark as well and keep on, maybe all the way to the other side. The dark ahead looked endless, it seemed to go on forever, but he knew that it couldn’t last. He’d learned earlier than most that nothing is forever.

He got far enough that the rock felt cooler against his palm. The gateway held an aroma of dust and remnants of smoke, which he presumed must’ve been coal residue on the ceiling. The only noises in the dark were the shifting of the earth and rocks beneath his steps and the sound of his breathing. Louder than both of these, louder than the booming silence, was the drone of words beating away with a driving rhythm. Don’t fear shadows in your track, walk on through them, don’t look back. The words seemed to serve as some mystical incantation and he felt as though he had the strength to face anything. Had his father known the words from the old tale, he wondered? Surely not, for if his dad possessed the type of strength he felt now he would never have ‘run like a coward from his responsibilities’ as their mother liked to put it.

If only adults took the time and told each other stories, the way they do for children, perhaps they’d be stronger and maybe the world would be a better place. Everybody knows kids are braver than adults. The connection seems natural enough between diminishing courage that comes with aging and the depletion of stories. Stories make us stronger. Liam told himself that he cared dearly about the world being a better place and all, but the truth he felt inside was he’d watch the world burn if it meant he’d have a dad again.

Even with his eyes adjusted as well as they were, it was so dark he nearly walked right past the large white triangle mark his brother left. He wondered why Will would have turned back here, and why he’d ran all the way back. He turned and squinted his eyes, and realized there was only a fingernail sliver of light left, resembling cracked door with the sun behind it. Liam figured he had to be at least halfway through the Gateway, if not farther and the thought of actually making it all the way through to the other side was such an intoxicating idea he didn’t see how he had much of a choice at all. The endless glory, the eternal bragging rights, never having to defend tagging along again, it was all a bit too much to resist. There was a small worry of why he could not yet see light from the other side, for even though the long tunnel curved it was not by so much that this far in he should still see only dark ahead. He walked on. As he gazed forward into the abyss he felt it gazing back into him and thought he spied a ring of day light, as though some disc or perfectly spherical boulder blocked out all but a hint of the light. Unable to make sense of such a strange site, the boy shook his head to clear it away and then once again saw only a mesh of shadow. With the words to fuel him and the wall to guide him, Liam headed on past his brother’s mark further into the darkness, searching for daylight in shadows.

A pain started in his belly and then spread to his head. He repeated the words louder and louder until he was screaming them out in his mind, and though they made him feel brave they did nothing to soothe him and his nausea increased, until he fell to one knee. When he looked up again the dark shimmered before him. Liam always wore a flattened coin around his neck, a remnant from a trip with his father to the train tracks near their place. After Liam was caught too close to the tracks, his father showed him what a train could do to metal, warning his boy to keep bones and skin far away from the tracks. The piece of metal began to lift off Liam’s neck as though it were being pulled towards the shimmer, then just as quickly as it had appeared the shimmer in the darkness faded and the coin fell back against his chest. It felt much colder than it had just a few moments before. Liam still felt ill but noticed the sensation slowly fading.

The voices of his brother and mother and even his father competed in his mind, telling him it was time to stop, time to go home, that enough was enough and it was okay to head back now. After briefly considering turning back he decided to press on, feeling positive he’d almost certainly never venture this far into the Gateway again. Already he was feeling great regret at having gone as far as he had, fearing he wouldn’t have enough time to make it back should he hear a warning. If it came to it he would run for the other side and hope for the best. Mostly he felt bad thinking of Will, sure his brother must be worrying and doing his best to hide it in front of his friends, and that odd shimmer…but he pushed those thoughts from his mind and focused only on the words…don’t look back, don’t fear shadows in your tracks, walk on through them, and don’t look back. Don’t look back. Don’t. Look. Back.

The sound frightened him for a moment before he recognized it was as the sound of his own voice, and realized he was mumbling the words aloud again. They felt good on his tongue and he repeated them over again, chanting them a little louder and then a little louder still, until they were as steady as his breathing. It sounded as though he spoke them in defiance, as though it were some sacred script or a series of forbidden curse words known only by the few allowed to speak them. Words passed down from the ancients in many languages long dead, containing a mystical protective power. The boy pictured a soft glow around him in the dark, a shield against the encroaching abyss.

He was so focused on his chant and so deep into the heart of the Gateway that he did not at first even notice the noises from behind him, confusing them with the voices in his mind. Even after he recognized them for what they were he struggled to make them out. It sounded like wild howling animals warning of a predators approach. Then Will’s strong voice cut through Charles and Teddy’s screams and the single syllable word was clear.

Train, Will was shouting. Train! Train!

The word paralyzed his body but sent his mind into overdrive. He tried to focus as a thousand thoughts raced inside his head, colliding into one another, shattering into a million more. How far was he into the tunnel? There was no real way to gauge. Did he have time to make it back before the train entered or was it safer to bolt for the other side of the tunnel? There was no light in either direction now, but there did seem to be a faint shimmer in the dark behind him. Again he heard the faint echo of voices warning of a train. This time the word had the opposite effect and freed him of his motionless state. He shouted back through the dark.

Which way? Yet as soon as the words were out of his mouth, Liam realized how ridiculous they were. Will and the others had no way of knowing how deep he’d gone, so couldn’t very well suggest which direction he should run in. Will did answer however, with the same message he had been yelling.

Train! Run! This time however the calls were much clearer and louder and more frantic. Come on!

The voice was again slightly louder and clearer. Then it hit him, Will was coming after him. He hadn’t moved fast enough and now because of his hesitation, they might both die. He thought of how the coin looked before and after its encounter with a train. Knowing Will was in peril sparked his mobility and he took off running in the direction of his brother’s voice, keeping his right fingers in contact with the wall to guide him as he went.

Go back, I’m coming!

Will just kept shouting train though and didn’t seem to hear him. The sound of his warnings grew ever closer until they were just around the bend. Liam picked up his pace and ran as fast as he could, he took his hand from the wall and tripped almost immediately over one of the wood beams the tracks were laid over, falling hard.

Liam’s necklace began to lift off his chest again. He looked up as he got to his feet and saw his brother’s silhouette growing larger as he neared. Upon realizing he could see at all again drove a spike of fear into his heart as he was certain the light in the tunnel was from the train entering the Gateway, and that it was too late. Then he heard the train’s whistle and could tell from the sound that it was still a ways off.

The soft glow was the shimmer he had seen a glint of before, a little brighter now than it was at first. Liam could see through it, but despite its transparency he could still see the thing itself, like a window pane or a soap bubble. It was beautiful, like faint water colors painting over glass. Colors swirled in it and formed fragments of unfocused scenes before dissipating again. Will reached the spot on the other side of the strange wavering light and stopped. The brothers stood there sharing the briefest moment of wonder before the shimmer, like the fragile soap bubble it resembled seemed to pop out of existence, leaving the boys in darkness once more. Liam put his arm out and when nothing happened, ran through the spot where the thing had been and hugged his brother.

Let’s go, come on, Liam said.

What…what the hell was –?

The rails were vibrating harder, Liam found his brother’s hand in the dark and shouted, Come on! They could barely hear the other two boys screaming over the repeated train whistles. They started to run again towards the sound of their voices. That was when the light from the train’s headlight filled the tunnel as it entered the Gateway. They stopped and Will tightened his grip on his younger brother’s hand as Liam spoke both their thoughts out loud.

There’s no time.

Once in a book Liam read, there was a man who was trapped in a train tunnel just like them with a train approaching. In the story, the man is able to find a crevice in the rock and squeezed into it as the train sped past close enough to fray his clothes. It was all Liam could think of and a story helped him once already that day.

Quick find a space in the wall.

What?! Are you crazy?! Let’s go, Will said. We gotta run the other way. Go!

Liam tried to pull his hand away but Will tightened his grip and said, I’m serious, run the other way now or I’ll –

Shut up, we can’t! We can’t outrun a train.

He ripped his hand from Will’s strong grasp and began feeling along the cool rock for their only chance. The walls were far from smooth and along his trek he’d felt more than few large divots and hoped he could find one big enough for both of them, or else two where they could each squeeze in. Frantically he rubbed his hands over one wall.

Help me. Feel for big dips.

Will started feeling along the opposite wall. They had to scream to be heard and could no longer hear the voices outside at all, only the pounding of the train and its whistle screeching at them. It sounded like a thousand elephants led by a howling banshee. The rails were shaking so hard it caused the boys’ teeth to rattle.

Here! Over here, hurry, hurry!

Will followed his brother’s voice, waving his hands about until he found his shoulder. The moment he touched him, Liam grabbed him by the arms and pushed him back against the rocks, into a spot just large enough for him to squeeze into alone.  He went to move but his younger brother shoved him back again.

Stay, he said, sounding as if he was reprimanding a dog.

They were screaming to be heard over the train as Will tried to argue. But you-

There’s…other one…ight…ere…e fine.

Those were the only fragments Will made out before the light of the train lit up his brother’s face, revealing a look of determination and fury, but no trace of fear. Liam nodded at him and Will returned the nod. Then Liam was gone, once again feeling along the wall. Will leaned his head out slightly and saw his brother’s lips moving as he moved his hands all over the rock, as if searching for some switch to a hidden entrance. The train was barreling towards them; the sound of it echoing in the tunnel forced Will to cover his ears.

Will thought the light from the train suddenly reflected off a surface just beyond Liam, who with his focus on the wall failed to notice it. Will yelled something but couldn’t even feel the vibration of his own voice, let alone hear it.  The shimmer was back and much brighter and Liam was moving closer and closer to it, only inches away when he looked back towards his brother and the approaching train. Will pointed and Liam turned and saw the shimmer, and tilted his head as he gazed into it. Then he turned, smiling, the look of fury and determination replaced by that strange infectious grin. He spared one last look at Will and shouted something to his brother. The he smiled again, turned and walked through the light and disappeared into the shimmer. For a moment after, it appeared to burn much brighter, forcing him to look away. Then his brother and the shimmer were both gone. A bare track illuminated by the train’s light.

Before Will even had time to react to what he’d just seen or shout his brother’s name the train shot past him like a black bolt of lightning and the thunder followed. He pressed himself hard against the wall as the iron monster roared past. The train screamed in his face and Will couldn’t help howling back at it. He stood there pressed against the stone, screaming as loud as he could and not hearing it. As the end of the train passed, there was another brilliant flash of light where the shimmer manifested, and then it was gone. The train vanished around the bend and its sound slowly diminished until a still silence returned to the Gateway. Will stood in shock, wedged in the crevice his brother had found for him, his ears ringing. After a moment he dared to lean his head out again and looked where his brother last stood, and saw only nothingness. He ran to where his brother had walked into the light and felt around in the air but nothing seemed different, except that he felt slightly nauseous. He collapsed to the floor, panicking, and began to weep, crying out his brother’s name again and again and again. His voice gave out long before he did.

After both refused to go in unless the other came along, Teddy and Charles walked into the dark tunnel entrance. They called out for Will and Liam but received no response. A little deeper in they heard muffled crying and followed it to find Will, crouched in the fetal position, rocking back and forth. He was mumbling to himself nonsensically and repeating something they couldn’t recognize at first. After searching and failing to find Liam, they assumed the worst. They pulled Will to his feet and led him back towards the light.

When at last they managed to get him to speak a few words it was a cold monotone which escaped his lips. In his poor mind state, Will made the not-so-advisable decision to share with his friends exactly what he had experienced. This was also the first time he detailed word for word what Liam had experienced on his own, saying he could feel what he felt and see what he saw. Both boys figured Will had seen his brother crushed by the train and gone mad. Water was all they had to offer him in the way of consolation.

Not another word was spoken by any of them as they led him back through the desert to the parked car and drove home. To their surprise there was no protest. Will sat unblinking, eyes fixed on nothing and that was how he remained for three more days before he would even take a sip of water on his own. Despite his mother’s pleading, demanding and physical assaults he did not waiver. He was a living statue for days.

During that first week people searched best they could based on what Teddy and Charles told them. After combing the tunnel however, no traces of Liam were ever found, not one drop of blood or scrap of clothing. It was at this point that the two boys’ stories changed. Teddy told anybody who’d listen the crazy tale Will shared with them after they pulled him from the Gateway, tossing in plenty of embellishments, as if the real story weren’t fantastical enough. Charles on the other hand seemed unable to recall any part of the story. He stated only that Will was rambling when they pulled him from the tunnel but that he hadn’t paid much mind to it. He never spoke again about what happened that day and ignored anybody who asked.

To everyone’s surprise it was Will himself who stated that despite its flaws, Teddy’s account was the more accurate version. Will would do anything to find his brother, so despite Charles’s warning of what would happen, he went on and on to anybody who would listen. One day a man came to town just to hear the tale from the source firsthand. The man, it turned out, was the owner of the train which passed through the Gateway that day and was attempting to decipher a mysterious disappearance of his own. The very last train car did not arrive with the rest of the locomotive. They back-tracked the whole route but after finding no sign of it anywhere wondered how a train car vanished without a trace. After hearing about the missing boy, the man thought perhaps there was a connection. Remembering the second flash of light in the tunnel, Will sat up and listened more intently as the train’s owner described how the car connector appeared to have been severed clean through, another impossibility. It was this new development which turned Will’s despair to hope. If it opened again shortly after, then perhaps the shimmer inside the Gateway wasn’t closed forever, as he feared. Will clung to that hope. They never found any clues of what might have happened and after only a few days, trains were once again passing through the Gateway. For Will, every time he heard a distant train he imagined bulls trampling through a graveyard.

Eventually nearly everybody in the southwest knew ‘Poor Will’s story’ but let him be, mostly out of pity for his loss. The boy becoming a man couldn’t work and more than once was hauled out of the Gateway, where he was chasing trains into the tunnel and ‘trying to find the opening’. Whatever happened to his brother nobody knew for sure, but one thing was certain, that whatever happened Will never stopped blaming himself for it and never gave up his search.

About a year after Liam – and the caboose – disappeared, the passenger train with just over a hundred people aboard was seen by two ranch hands entering the Gateway. The train never came out the other side. No remains were ever found. It to date is still the only recorded incidence of a train just vanishing. The families and the public were terrified at first and infuriated once they learned the previous incident, involving a child. As a result the Gateway was decommissioned and both entrances were blown and sealed off.

Aside from the few who knew him well, most folks assumed Will would be glad nobody else would be hurt, but instead he threw a fit when he heard the news, pleading that if they did have to close it off, to do it with him inside so he would at least have a chance of seeing his brother again. The man who came to town the first time remembered Will, and it was during the damage control for the passenger tragedy that he was placed into hospitalization, after a generous donation was made to those charged with determining whether somebody was dangerous crazy or just the normal kind. He lost his mother in the years between Liam vanishing and the passenger car following suit, so without family or any real money he didn’t have much of a chance of ever getting out. And once they saw such a harmless sweet man locked up so easily, everybody followed Charles’s lead and made an effort to forget his crazy story altogether. When the passenger train – and the passengers – never turned up, there were whispers of Will being right. Unfortunately, alone in his quarters here, Will never heard them.

When I checked myself in here it was mainly for financial reasons but also because I was feeling a little overwhelmed and thought a rest would help. Will had already been here for decades and had attempted several breakouts, including one on his 65th birthday, but by the time I got here he seemed resigned to his fate. He wasn’t as keen on being alone as he used to be, but not so many people knew it. We both played a good game of chess and were well read. Once I revealed I was usually in possession of some liquor, we became friends. I paid attention to him and didn’t drool or piss myself, so I had a one up on a good number of the competition. Nor did I rudely talk to myself while he was speaking. I listened.

One late night over a game and some whiskey, I asked how somebody like him ended up in there, so he told me. I started crying when he finished, couldn’t help myself. He asked if I believed him and I told him that of course I did. He wasn’t a liar. I knew him well enough by then to know that much. I offered my help.

What could you do? he asked.

So I told him. I can get you out of here. You don’t belong here anymore than I do.

He smiled and told me he was probably too old for a jail break, old Indian.

I couldn’t help but smile back. Nothing so fun, I’m afraid.

After a long pause he seemed to understand my offer was genuine and I saw a glimmer of reserved hope return to his tired eyes. He asked if I could really help him, and I told him that I really could.

How?

Owning a hospital has more perks than just free room and board, I said.

We left the building together in the morning and ate blueberry pancakes from an old diner near the hospital that I knew well. A place called Coffee Cantata. Over breakfast, as he enjoyed his first cup of coffee, Will’s uneasiness wore off a little bit at a time until he seemed to accept this was not just some cruel jape. We discussed what came next and for Will it was a pretty single minded effort. There was only one thing he still seemed to care about, Liam.

Despite his eagerness and insistence that we just grab some sledgehammers, pickaxes and torches and head for the Gateway at once, I convinced him we needed to be better prepared.

I checked into the status of the place but also looked into which metals are magnetic, what types of rock the tunnel was cut through and several other factors I thought would prove important or at least interesting. Most fascinating though was the impact and geology records for that area.

The second night after leaving the hospital, I caught Will trying to sneak out with my car keys. I asked him why he was in such a rush, that surely after all these years he could wait a few more days. Will revealed he had a reoccurring nightmare. He told me that he’s had it ever since they sealed off the Gateway, decades prior.

In the nightmare, it is always midnight and Liam returns as the shimmer returns, Will said. He appears the same age as when he vanished, still wearing that flattened metal coin around his neck. Only seconds have passed where he went while decades passed here. Liam looks ecstatic to be back, but once the shimmer fades he is left again in the darkness of a moonless night, all alone. He manages to make it first to one end of the tunnel and then the other, only to find his escape blocked off, and with a boy’s strength and no tools he’s got no hope of breaking free. He calls for me at each sealed passageway. As he walks, the time he avoided catches up with him and he ages years at a time. He used to repeat this rhyme our mom taught him, annoyed the hell out of me and finally he got tired of me making fun of him for it – he only said it when he got scared, you see -  so he stopped saying it all the time. Even after he stopped, though, I would catch him late at night in the dark whispering it sometimes in bed. He just kept repeating it over and over in the dream, as he walked and turned from a scared young boy to a hopeless old ghost he repeated that rhyme, each time his voice growing more strained. He just kept on with that old rhyme…Don’t fear shadows in your track. Walk right through them, don’t look back.

I sent a team ahead of us without telling Will, to clear away rubble and report what they found. The image of his brother trapped and withered with age, alone in the dark catacombs was haunting. They didn’t find anything – of course they didn’t. I just needed to be sure. I just needed to know that whatever we found there, it wouldn’t be that.

We came prepared to wait. Plenty of food and water, and more than enough light. It was still well over a week before the shimmer reappeared, just after midnight. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was peeing outside the tunnel, looking up at the moonless sky and admiring the Pleiades, when I heard Will call for me and I came running with my light in hand, though I had no need of it. The shimmer was exactly as he’d described it and illuminated the tunnel with light from inside itself. Will looked at me and the smile on his face transformed him back into the young boy who, though his body remained, vanished along with his younger brother, all those years before. He was elated and looked angelic bathed in the light of the real gateway.

We have to go, come on. It doesn’t stay open for long.

I…I don’t…it’s so beautiful.

He turned back towards it, and after a second tilted his head slightly as the colors seemed to form some type of fuzzy landscape image. He turned back to me and I saw a tear in his eye as he said thank you. Then he laughed a little and walked through the shimmer. I wanted to follow him, but I didn’t. It wasn’t that I had anything keeping me here. I just never was one for riding my bike with my eyes closed, or swimming at night, if that makes any sense. But the second after I saw him vanish I knew I wanted to go and needed to move right then if I wanted to make it. I didn’t move though, I just stood there and watched the shimmer flash out, leaving the tunnel lit only by the pathetic light in my hand, the brilliance of the real gateway muted once more.

I don’t want to say how long I’ve been here waiting, it’s a little embarrassing, but some things are worth waiting for. What I will say is that I wanted there to be some record, of what really happened to Liam and Will Davis, and perhaps what happened to me, if I’m lucky enough to get a second chance.

I don’t know for sure that the shimmer will open again, but if it does, wherever it leads, I hope that it’s as beautiful as I imagine, I hope that if I tilt my head slightly that the image comes into focus for me, and I hope I get to see my friend again. I hope.

 

                        THE END

The Book

The…

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As Melinda flipped open the book, she saw words begin to fill the page, penned by some invisible hand. Melinda began to read the words as they appeared.

It is a universal truth that the best way to ensure children will seek out something, is for one to inform the child that said item is exclusively for adults and that they are far too young for such things. Though when Melinda’s late grandmother issued the warning, first to her own daughter and then later to Melinda herself, she was serious in her repeated proclamations that the ancient text which had been handed down through the generations of their family was indeed far too terrifying for children. Especially children with such powerful imaginations, for imagination is a very powerful thing, and no matter how much it may be discounted or dismissed, it is up there with love and fear as one of the most powerful forces of the human condition.

It was seven days after her Grandma Tilly’s death when Melinda’s mother brought her the tattered old thing. She saw the book many times over the years, but until recently it remained only as a speck in the girl’s peripheral, one of many dusty relics floating around her grandmother’s place. The book waited patiently for the next time it would become the center of attention. After all, what is a few years or even decades collecting dust to a thing so ancient?

Grandma Tilly moved in with them shortly before Melinda’s father was taken by a heart attack. She had come at her daughter’s invitation and insistence, to assist with the house and Melinda, as both the girl’s parents were working so often. Besides needing help with the housecleaning, Melinda’s parents were concerned for their only child, who had, they felt, too strong an imagination and spent far more time with books than with other children. And please allow me to clarify that when I say Melinda’s parents were concerned for her, what I actually mean is that the girl’s mother was worried and so of course the father had to get on board. Though in truth the girl reminded the man of himself as a boy, and his daughter’s wild imagination and love of stories delighted him. It was he who first read to the girl, even in her crib, until she was at last able to fulfill her desire to wrench the book from his grasp and read it aloud herself. But William James Henderson had learned some time ago that to argue with his wife, especially in regards to anything concerning Melinda, was to attempt to lasso flies with a fishing line – a near impossible task, hardly worth the frustration and effort required. So when Sandra expressed her desire that her mother – who was just ‘sitting out there alone, waiting around for holidays and death’, according to Sandra – should come and stay with them, William understood that meant his mother-in-law was likely already packed and en route, and he was safe in his assumption. For her part, Sandra’s mother Tilly had refused her daughter’s generous but unnecessary offer multiple times before relenting.

Within a week, Grandma Tilly was unpacking her things, including the book, in the guest bedroom adjacent to Melinda’s. Less than a month later William Henderson’s heart gave out and he died. A short while after that Tilly followed, and still it didn’t stop there.

 

“Just keep it away from her! She has her father’s imagination,” Melinda overheard Tilly say to the girl’s mother, just days before Tilly herself was dead. “It’s too much for kids like her, Sandra, too much.”

“But I read it as a girl mom,” Sandra said.

“You snuck it as a girl! And, and you’re…well…that was different. We’re just lucky the scariest thing to you was getting lost in the woods,” Tilly said.

“What does that have to do with anyth-”

“Just promise me you’ll keep the book away,” she snapped at her daughter. Then she took a breath and in a much softer voice said, “Please, Sandra.”

Her mother had always been eccentric, but after Bill was found dead in his reading chair it seemed to Sandy that her mother was finally going crazy. Tilly, you see, was the one who found Bill.

Sandra was at work and Melinda at school when it happened. Bill seemed fine the day before but claimed that morning that he was under the weather and was going to stay home to recover and get some reading done. Tilly was bringing him some tea and chicken noodle soup when, just before she rounded the corner, her ears were flooded with a hideous howl of sheer terror. The sound was a high-pitched screech, like that of some massive bird of prey being eviscerated. It was no sound a man should ever utter. Tilly paused, still holding the tray with the pair of steaming mugs in her hand. The scent of green tea and chicken broth mixed in her nostrils and made her feel ill. She called out Bill’s name twice, and then after receiving no reply took a deep breath, steadied herself and turned the corner. She dropped the tray when she saw her son-in-law.

Bill was propped up in his big brown leather chair, his jaw unhinged in a frozen scream and his thick head of black hair had gone snow-white – much whiter than the blank, yellowed pages in the book which sat open upon his lap. Without looking another second at its pages, Tilly snatched the ancient tome from his warm dead hands and returned it to her room. Not that it would do much good, she thought. The book always made sure it was found.

She never shared with Sandra the presence of the book, knowing that her daughter would then try to destroy it.

Tilly’s mother and brother had both attempted to rid the family of the poisonous thing after it claimed Tilly’s father, and both had suffered the consequences. The brother tried first and then, seeing what it had done to her son, the mother tried shortly thereafter. After it killed their mother, she and her then catatonic brother were sent off to be raised in an orphanage in Rhode Island, where the book followed. It was there that her brother managed to choke on his own tongue. When she saw the book lying open on his chest she at first didn’t believe her eyes and assumed it had to be a copy or just a similar book. After she realized her last living family member was dead, she believed.

Tilly buried the book in a far corner of the field near the orphanage and tried to forget it and go on with her life. She watched helplessly as it resurfaced time and again. During her eight years there, she watched as the wretched tome claimed four other children in ‘tragic accidents’. Sad as it was these were acceptable losses to her, she did not know the children well and as long as the book spared her she was content to simply let it be, until she could leave on her eighteenth birthday.

Then it took the fifth child.

Tilly did her best to keep herself to herself and had succeeded except with regards to Isaak Walton. Isaak managed, after much persistence, to break through the carefully constructed barriers built up around the girl. They became fast friends, thick as thieves, and were often in trouble at the same time. Isaak was in love with young Tilly ever since he spied her burying something in the corner of the field eight years before. He had gone out there shortly after to dig up whatever it was she had tried to hide, but when he removed the loose earth he found nothing. He thought perhaps he’d merely imagined the aged leather book in her hands, until he stumbled upon it resting atop his bed. Assuming it was a gift from his friend he opened the book, and as words appeared on the page he read them.

Isaak’s death was the catalyst which finally allowed Tilly to stop ignoring it and overcome her fear of the vile thing. She tried to burn it but when the fire had run its course from kindling to ashes and the book still didn’t catch, she flung it into the center of the lake by the home place, and was exalted as she watched the dark water devour it whole. She was so happy heading back home that to her surprise she actually began skipping. When she walked into the cavernous communal bedroom, lined with ten beds on each wall, the book was resting on her bed, dry as a bone.

Tilly often wondered why the book did not just put her out of her misery, and why such a cursed collection of pages was ever passed down in the first place. There had always been rumors of a family curse, on account of poor luck and tragic deaths, not mentioning the several cases where parents had tried murdering their children. Over time, after many fatalities and many more failed attempts at destroying it, she came to the conclusion, crazy as it is, that the book really is alive and it wants to stay that way. Perhaps more insane, she deduced that a member of their family line had to be breathing for the book to carry on. So cruelly, it spared her.

Since all conventional methods of destruction failed, the only way Tilly ever saw of getting rid of it was to take her own life and end the line. Unfortunately when she went to a doctor friend for the pills she needed, they learned she was pregnant with Sandra. She weighed her options and with a heavy heart decided not to have the child, but after a failed ‘home remedy’, an unsuccessful operation, and seven months, she had a daughter and the line continued. The baby never should have made it. It was a miracle, they all kept saying. She denied knowledge of who Sandra’s father was, and she never spoke of Isaak again.

She didn’t want to take the time to deal with all of the questions her daughter would ask, and besides Tilly had no more answers than any of her descendants. Despite years of research and attempts at tracking family history in order to better decipher the book’s origins, all she knew was what she had surmised as a girl – the book belonged to their line and could not be gotten rid of. After all her denying and testing and theorizing it was her childhood logic that saw things as they were, despite how absurd it was. It seemed that as long as one existed, so too did the other. That was all that was known of its origins, nothing at all. So Tilly circumvented all the explaining – that she was sure would have only served to land her in the nuthouse, her daughter had never been very imaginative – and just asked her daughter again, “Promise?”

“Sure Mom, whatever. I gotta get to work.”

“It’s hardly been a week!”

“I’m going crazy just sitting around all day. I need to be moving, to be working,” Sandra said.

“You’re not just sitting around, honey, you’re recovering, you’re mourning. And what about Melinda?” The last bit came off sounding almost accusatory, which was not her intention.

“She’s strong, Mom. Plus she’s got you here to protect her from all the books out there.”

Tilly just stared at her daughter and though that venomous stare still had much of its former potency, Sandra had developed an adult’s immunity to the look. Sandra started towards the door and Melinda, eavesdropping on the staircase around the corner, bolted as quietly as she could up the flight of stairs, taking them two at a time.

When her mom called up, “Bye, love you,” the girl responded, trying her best to hide her labored breath, “Love you.”

Melinda was strong but still struggled with all the loss, as anyone would. Her personal grieving process was burying herself deeper into her books and tearing through her immodest collection in no time at all. Were it not for her grandmother, the girl would likely have disappeared altogether into the world of fantasy, but never understanding that the make-believe can help us to face the unreal.

Grandma Tilly and Melinda shared a love of stories and always got on better than the girl and her mother ever had. The two of them spent evenings and secret days off reading tales of all sorts, the girl always ecstatic to show her grandma some new book she was sure nobody knew of – rarities like The Wizard of Oz, or Lord of the Rings. They went exploring though the parks and would drive out to forest preserves looking for fairy tale cottages. Once they came upon an old stone dwelling which had burned down sometime in the distant past. Ignoring the blackened mattress springs and old magazines, Tilly explained to Melinda that the house had been the home of a great witch, but she had been chased by the townspeople and burned in the house. The girl enjoyed these stories so much that she thought of nothing else for a time, and that was good. Tilly was instrumental in helping the girl after she lost her father. Unfortunately when Tilly herself died a short time later, the girl’s mother was lost, gone, operating on a malfunctioning auto pilot. She left it up to Melinda’s books to get her through. But only Melinda’s books.

Bill always let his daughter take any book she wanted from his vast personal collection, but Sandra locked Bill’s office, saying nobody could touch his things, no not even his books. After her mother’s death, Sandra drowned herself in wine while Melinda buried herself in stories. They had a vast wine cellar in the basement but a limited library and long before the red ran dry, Melinda was out of things to read. So the girl started hunting for the forbidden text she’d heard her mother and grandma talking about.

She looked everywhere for it, only to find it hiding out in the open, beside her bed, on her very own bookshelf. Melinda assumed that her mother, in the drunken haze she’d been stumbling around in, found it and tossed it in with her collection. The young girl had long ago surpassed the literature of her age group and after falling in love with The Shining, Melinda became a horror aficionado and couldn’t find a book scary enough to suit her. She took on all the titles supposedly ‘too scary for kids’ and devoured all of them but was never satisfied. After all the hype and warnings even the most terrifying of tales – while delighting her – only left her craving one more terrifying. She itched to reach her limits, to see how much she could take. And here was the forbidden book of insanity and horror just waiting to be picked up.

The aged brown leather spine jutted out half an inch or so from the selections beside it, as though it were inviting her to indulge in its secrets, reaching out its hand and offering a forbidden dance. She hesitated for half a second, thinking of the genuine fear and concern she heard in Tilly’s voice that day in the kitchen and heard her grandma as clear as if she were standing beside her, whispering in her ear. Keep her away from it…promise. In the end temptation proved too great, so after checking to make sure her grandma wasn’t really there, Melinda reached out her hand and removed the book from the shelf.

She felt electricity surge up her arm. As she grasped the book, it felt alive, like some small creature writhing in her grip. The cover was faded brown and to Melinda’s touch – which was quite the seasoned one, despite her age – it felt as though it were made of some ancient leather, but none she’d ever encountered. The exquisite craftsmanship that showed in the book’s construction took the girl’s breath away. She was after all a book lover and this was by far the finest specimen she ever beheld, and it was not in a museum under protective glass but in her hands. The book’s binding was warm to the touch and for a moment, just a moment, Melinda felt ill holding it. It felt in that instant as though the book was crawling under her skin, latching on, fusing with her. Glimpses of eons gone by flashed before her, then she blinked and they were gone. All at once she wanted to tear this piece of literary art to shreds, to burn it and drown the ashes.

That was only for a moment though, and then the moment passed.

It was only then that Melinda noticed it was the back of the book she’d been looking down upon. She turned it over in her hands, loving the way the cover of cured flesh felt sliding over her own. Pig skin, she wondered. Close, but she somehow felt sure that wasn’t it. Embossed on the front of the thing in her hands was a strange symbol Melinda could not comprehend. She snuck one of her father’s Lovecraft books once and saw something similar drawn within. Before she had a chance to study it, the odd mark clearly became a word and she found she could not remember what had been there before.

Printed now upon the face of the book was a title consisting of a single word. It read only The…

Her excitement was beyond measure as she opened the book to read the story of The… To gaze upon the ‘forbidden text’ in all its hideous glory. That thrill died the moment she looked upon the first yellowed page. Melinda opened her mouth in a silent protest of disbelief. The whole thing had been a joke they were playing on her. They knew she was listening, they must’ve. She began flipping through the soft thin pages one by one, but there was nothing written upon any of them.

Melinda slumped down upon her bed with The… opened to its first page, wondering if perhaps her mom had just slipped her a fake. That was when it happened. On the page, letters began to appear. Her mouth dropped open again as she watched the letters populate the page, spreading like a virus, forming first words and then whole paragraphs. Above where the first sentence was still forming, the title appeared. Just below The… was printed, ‘by Melinda Henderson’.

Melinda stood up on rubber legs and tried to let the book fall from her grasp, but it stuck in her hands as though it were glued. She tried to close the book but found she couldn’t even do that. All went quiet then, and a single voice began to speak inside the girl’s head in a language that was ancient when man was grunting at one another over scraps of raw meat. Her gaze was pulled to the first line and she was just about to start reading what was there, when her mother smacked the book out of her hands and onto the floor.

She looked up at her mom in a daze and though she saw her mother yelling at her, all she heard was a high-pitched tone. Somewhere below it, fainter now but still there, was the voice of the book which now lay at her feet, the pages once again blank.

Her mother smacked her across the face, spilling some of the wine she was holding onto the cream carpet. Melinda’s mom never struck her before, but as she stared at the purple droplets sinking into the carpet she was glad she had. For as soon as she hit Melinda, it was as though the girl’s head was cleared of cobwebs. The mutterings ceased, her ears popped and at once she was able to hear her mother clearly again. She was yelling something about the book, snooping around and stealing. Then she grabbed The… off the floor and stormed from the room, slamming the door as she went.

Melinda collapsed on her bed and started crying. She hadn’t cried when her father died and she had just started to accept he was really gone when she lost Tilly. None of it seemed real to her, it was all too terrible and too familiar, like something out of some tragic book. She kept waiting for the heroic part where things all turned around and were good again, like in the stories, but somehow that smack had clarified it all – this was all really happening. So she buried her face in her pillow and the dam burst.

She lay there in bed until the sunlight fled from the world.

Sandra was well drunk and smoking on the porch, trying to understand why her daughter would have taken such trouble to get that book. She couldn’t figure out how Melinda even knew about it. Since losing her mother, Sandra threw that ugly thing in the trash three times and each time it kept ending up back in the house. She knew she’d been drinking more than normal – things weren’t, after all, very normal – and until she caught Melinda red-handed she’d started to wonder if she was losing it, but now figured the girl was obviously fishing the book out of the trash.

By sunset, Sandra had reached the reflective phase of her drunk and the more she thought about everything the more awful she felt for the way she’d treated her little girl. All over some stupid book. She thought, They were always so much better with her, Mom was the only one able to get her to stop crying the day she was born and Bill was a natural from then on. Then Sandra realized the girl just missed her grandma, and must have wanted something of hers. The girl did love old dusty things Sandra would’ve thrown away. What harm could it really do anyways? Plus, she wanted her daughter on her side, she was going to need all the help she could get.

A shiver went through Melinda when she heard the door shut behind her mother, followed by the familiar muted steps up the carpeted stairs. Her parent’s room, or rather her mother’s room, is just down the hall from the staircase. In order to get to Tilly’s old room you go up an extra two steps and the first one creaked, always giving Melinda just enough time to shut off the flashlight and tuck away her book. When the step groaned in protest the girl’s stomach let out a strange gurgle. Her eyes were closed but she felt her mother move across the room towards the bed, where she sat beside her daughter. After a few seconds, she whispered her name. Melinda had the blanket Tilly knitted for her over most of her head, but could still smell the alcohol on her mom’s breath. As her mom started to speak, Melinda just rolled over so that her back was to her.

“Okay, that’s okay, honey,” she said. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry and…and I know you miss them too. I love you, honey. We’ll get through this together, you, me, and your new little brother or sister.”

That was enough for the girl to forget her anger and turn to face her mother with wide eyes.

“Uh-huh,” she said, and then smiled.

Melinda thought of the quantities of wine her mother had been downing and said, “The wine, you-”

“It’s okay, honey. It’s just a little, and early on doesn’t matter anyway,” her mother said. “You’re fine, aren’t you?”

“I thought that makes babies retarded. That’s what they said happened to Chris Jacobs, that his mom-”

“Jesus Christ! That’s great, that’s just fucking great,” she said, as she stood. Looking down at her daughter she continued, “I’ve lost my husband and my mother in the last month, don’t I deserve some slack?!” She moved to the door.

“Sorry mom, I just…”

Without turning back, her mother said in a sturdy emotionless voice, “I left something for you on the bed.” Then she was gone, shutting the door behind her. The girl listened to her mom slump away.

Melinda looked down and saw the book. The voice in her head spoke up again, clearer and louder than before. She picked the book up and opened it. The words looked as though they had just been set down in fresh ink, yet when she rubbed her fingertip over the fine paper none smeared. She began to read.

Sandra stormed down the steps to the kitchen and refilled the freshly drained wine glass.

“Jesus,” she said to the empty room.

Sandra hadn’t really wanted to have kids but Bill was set on it and all her friends had told her that she would just fall naturally into it, that it was in all of us. Nothing had ever materialized of their instinctual promise, and most of the time, especially in moments like this, she was adrift without a compass. Typically Bill would take over and help keep the peace. Failing that, Tilly would have calmed both her and Melinda down. Thinking on that seemed an invitation, for the memory came of finding her mother dead.

She came home from work early and discovered Tilly in the backyard, next to a plastic tub filled part way with acid she’d gotten from god knows where. She was lying beside the tub, face down. When Sandra turned her mom over, she saw the woman’s face was burned nearly beyond recognition, the skin washed away like wet newspaper, exposing scalded lidless eyes and dentures smiling a lipless smirk.

As Sandra threw up beside her mother’s corpse she saw the book was lying there in the grass beside the bucket, unscathed. That was the first time she threw it away. As they wheeled Tilly away, Sandra swore her mother’s white hair somehow appeared lighter.

Melinda’s scream bellowed so loud that Sandra jumped and dropped her wine glass, and then darted upstairs. The dead girl who was her daughter had always had her father’s dark hair, but the little cadaver frozen in a scream now had her grandma’s.

Sandra Henderson walked over and took the book from her dead daughter’s hands. She looked down upon a strange symbol which looked to her like a mix between Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek letters, then it was gone and the title read only The… She’d never been very imaginative but she was now familiar with terror, and knew real horrors. She opened the book, and as the text was freshly inked, began to read.

Eight months later Thomas Henderson was born. He was called ‘the miracle baby born from tragedy’ in the local press. The baby born from a catatonic woman who’d lost her whole family. Thomas was born into humble celebrity, and after his mother died in childbirth, he was adopted by a well to do family in the Northeast.

On his first birthday, a family heirloom arrived for the young orphan. It was a small brown leather book and the message that came with it was written on old paper. The message read only, For Thomas Henderson.

5,000 words
Joel Allyn

 

Daily Endeavor

Sisyphus

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As always, the boulder rolled down the hill and once more, after a short reprieve, Sisyphus descended and attempted to roll the stone to the top again. He no longer wept when the inevitable came.

It was hot. His clothes had all withered away thousands of years before and so he was naked, and still it was so hot. It felt as though his flesh was on fire and yet, as he looked around he saw that the hill he pushed the boulder up was covered in lush tall grass and nestled in endless spring. There were purple and red flowers in bloom, swaying in a gentle breeze. He felt no breeze, and could smell nothing. He was drenched in sweat and his hands were more blisters than flesh.

Every time he pushed the massive boulder upward, slow step by slower step, he thought over his life. Things done and things left undone. Things which would have been better left undone. He wished he could remember the good things and that which brought him pleasure and joy. More than once he tried to steer his thoughts, to reminisce of childhood or his first love or even a sunset but succeeded only briefly. The focal point of his thoughts seemed to dwell around the negative acts he had committed and the virtuous ones he had not. No other thoughts were permitted. His memory was his tormentor, his apt mind his foe.

About a third of the way up, he hit a moist patch and lost his footing. The boulder rolled back slightly and when he attempted to push it, the sweat caused his palms to slip on the stone and the boulder almost rolled over him. Dropping to one knee he forced his shoulder into the rolling stone, halting its descent. He resembled Atlas, his broad shoulders alone supporting the weight of the world. Slowly, with great strain and care, he stood back up and after catching his breath, continued pushing the boulder up the hill.

As always, the memories came in droves, like a swarm of angry bees, and they stung. The pain was a familiar one, and yet each scar was opened anew and with each laceration he swore he had never experienced such agony.

Once, an eternity ago, he passed a beggar in the marketplace whose face looked familiar to him and even as the man called out his brother’s name, Sisyphus did not turn. Instead he quickened his pace and went on through the crowd until he came to a dark alley shielded from the light, where he fell to his knees and wept. The tears darkened the earth beneath him.

When his first wife lay dying of a painful illness, the thought came to him more than once to hasten her end. Not as a mercy, but in order that he may at last be rid of her and be free to welcome his mistress into the house. He saw his wife die a thousand gasping deaths on that hill, and each time was the first time.

Every time he at last moved beyond the image of his wife’s face, the visage of his first-mistress-turned-second-wife appeared. With a cruel clarity he saw her cold body dangling, with dripping wrists and broken neck, swaying from the rafters. Beside her his new mistress, their cook, who she had murdered. One of his second wife’s sandals had fallen to the floor to rest alongside his new mistress’ bare feet. He took both of them, before taking them both and burying them in secret atop a grassy hill. His shame was such a weight, that it seemed a second hunk of granite bound to his neck.

The boulder’s weight increased exponentially as he pushed it closer and closer to the top. To the end. Time was not an issue and all questions were ripped from his mind before he had time to understand their query. There were still many jagged edges upon the massive rock which had refused to be smoothed over by the wheel of time. As Sisyphus pushed ever upward, his palms raw, the points dug in hard and would pop the blisters. He kept on, leaving wet splotches of white and red on the grey stone. His shoulders howled for him to stop and his arms and legs had already begun to shake, much earlier than normal.

More than anger and less than hope welled in him and a fire was sparked. Instead of stepping aside and letting the stone roll away as he had done countless times before, he felt a new sense of determination and struggled on. Though Sisyphus had long ago abandoned his naïve hopes for redemption, he was possessed by a strange certainty that this was it. Then and there he knew he would not give in, no matter the pain or duress or if it broke all that he was. He was already a splintered man and was amazed to think that despite the outcome, this could be the last time.

I cannot say he did it without flinching, but nonetheless he faced the memories which came next with his head up and his feet firmly on the ground.

There was a child, a girl, with the first mistress, the second wife. He never cared for children but decided to do right by the wife he wronged and, as he saw it, killed. For seven months he raised the girl, stumbling along but managing to make his way, pushing on, convincing himself that what he felt for her was love. However, his inexperience was his undoing.

One day while fetching water he placed the child in the shallow basin to play and turned his attention from her, for only the briefest of moments he swore to all who would listen, and louder to those who would not. The briefest moment was enough time to snuff out the child’s fragile flame.

Awful as all this was, far worse was that not a week after he’d buried the girl, beside her mother atop the grassy hill, he found himself glad she was gone. He remembered this sickening realization over and over with a concentrated disdain. Each time he recalled cradling his wet, still warm yet still dead daughter, he felt the same helplessness, the pang of guilt and sorrow. Then he remembered how he refused to speak her name and turned her into ‘the dead girl’, then later just ‘the girl’ and then even later, dismissed as nothing, less than a whisper.

The rage he felt with himself helped muster the strength to push the weight of eternity on and on, and as sweat streamed from every pore he wept and screamed and went on. That fury fueled his ancient quivering muscles. For a brief stretch he felt like a god, and somehow managed to get almost to a slow walk when the boulder struck something and came to a dead stop.

At first, poor Sisyphus dreamed that somehow he’d finally reached the end of his torment, his justice. That the top had been crested and that the rock had come to a rest, but as he removed his hand the stone still rolled back towards him. Now that the rush of adrenaline had passed, the great burden nearly crushed him. When they hit each other like sumo wrestlers he stumbled back a few steps, surprised at how much heavier it was, and then dug his toes deep into the soft earth and attempted to hold the weight back with his outstretched arms.

The rock’s momentum, small though it was, was enough to get past his weakened limbs, but not quite enough to knock him over. He again dropped down upon the grass, but not on his knees. Instead he leaned so far forward that he was almost lying on his belly in the grass. He pushed off hard, digging in and kicking mounds of wet earth aside and then rammed his shoulder against the stone, leaving nasty gashes where several of the small points dug in and rubbed the faded flesh raw.

Sweating, crying and bleeding, Sisyphus pushed on.

When he struck the object which stopped him before, he grunted, held his breath, and then shoved harder and harder, reclaiming his upright position in slight degrees, he forced the boulder up over the small obstacle. Something gave beneath the weight of the massive rock and he heard a crunch. Looking down, he saw white pieces of bone scattered through the grass and knew it was the skull of a small animal. He knew what kind of animal it was too, but that memory was far below him now and he would not dwell upon it any longer. He faced it before he faced his wife, before his mistress and the mistress after, before the terrible atrocities he’d committed during his young adulthood, but after the minor misdeeds of his youth. That was where that skull belonged, that was its place and he had moved beyond it. Part of the skull fragments pierced his bare feet, and instead of flinch or attempt to extract them he pressed his foot down harder. Compared to the memories the pain was a relief.

Upward, ever upward, more and more weight piled on with each step, and still he kept on.

The hill gets steeper nearer to the top, and finally he sensed the ground’s angle begin to shift under him until it felt like he was pushing the rock up a wall. A desperate shadow of a smile crossed his face as he pleaded that this time, he may get there, and rest. More than that, he hoped he could just reach the top without reaching the memory he knew awaited him before it.

He never reached the memory before. The stone always rolled back down before then. Still, he knew.

A vile defeating thought infected his mind. Letting go was still an option. There was still the chance to just back away from the weight and give up. Yet he knew better, knew that even as it rested at the bottom of the hill he still felt the boulder’s crushing weight. Sisyphus, with skin raw and shredded, with blistered hands sticky with blood and puss, having stared into eternity for twice as long, pushed beyond anywhere he had dared before and weary as he was, continued upward.

When it hit him, it was worse than all the others put together and the torture was indescribable. Physical pain was but a mercy. He would have much rather been flayed and made to push a boulder ten times larger and covered in needles and broken glass, and been grateful for it. If only to avoid facing the thing he had buried away even from himself. It lay in a hollow mute cesspool flooded with impenetrable darkness, where all light is devoured and all sound is drowned.

He was a monster staring into the abyss, and the abyss also stared into him.

His eyes closed and for the first time, he remembered.

Their father told the boys that she was making them leave. He told Sisyphus and his younger brother that the only way for them to keep their home and their friends and indeed their lives, was for her to lose hers.

She was in the field, tied to a tree atop a hill where their father had left her. While the children saw to his wife, the father went into town to be seen, and to guarantee as many as possible saw him, he was in his cups. When the boys reached her and she saw their eyes and the object her oldest held, she began to weep and plead and curse their father. She rambled on about what the boys assumed was nonsense regarding their father’s affairs and her plan of taking them away to be safe from him. Something was said about him touching them and Sisyphus couldn’t stand anymore and so, filled with the rage and recklessness of youth he struck her hard with the club and what had been her jaw went slack and crooked.

The shock of seeing what he did, what he was capable of doing, left him frozen him in place and as his mother howled and bled he remained still, and silent. He wanted to take it back, he believed her, loved her, and needed her. He failed her, but he did not kill her.

After his yelling did nothing, his brother grabbed the hardwood club from his loose grip and did what Sisyphus could not. Still, he’d struck the first blow, the one that sealed her fate, and theirs.

Bawling like a baby and feeling as though he were moving Mt Olympus itself, Sisyphus summoned all that was left in him. The entirety of all that he was and had ever been, every ounce of love, hate, sweat, blood, memories, regrets, fears and fantasies. Screaming to the stars, he channeled it all and gave a final mighty shove, releasing everything he had, everything he was. The boulder rolled from his fingers, over one final hump, then it was still.

He let go of the weight. It did not fall back upon him.

He kept his hand hovering, shaking, over the face of the stone for a time, certain the second he believed it was truly motionless it would roll again. His legs gave out and he fell to the ground shaking. Sisyphus crawled around the stone to see what waited, half expecting there to be another hill atop this one or some other cruel joke. There atop the grassy hill, were several graves marked only with worn sticks surrounded by various sized piles of white stones. One grave, marked with a short pristine stick had only a small pile of pebbles. He knew his three lovers rested below, beside his daughter and mother. Beside their graves was a twisted and splintered branch stuck at the head of a place open for him, marked now with the great boulder.

Sisyphus pulled himself toward the end. Despite his weariness, it was not so hard to do. There was no weight to drag along through the grass that now felt cool on his skin. He felt the soft breeze too, and carried on the wind was the scent of flowers. He smiled.

Rest came, at long last.

Joel Allyn2,000 words 

February 2012