Howdy, readers. I'm going to be honest about this bit of fiction: it's fairly long. It is both the prologue and the first chapter of a completely different thing I've been working on. Which means I had the idea about two years ago, started it, stopped, started again, stopped again, rebooted it, rethought it, regurgitated, reduced it, enlarged it, and got enraged with it. Then I just started over and am much happier with it.
Should you choose to read on, you'll notice that the prologue is an entirely different flavor that the first chapter. That is correct. Don't think you stumbled into two different works.
As always, I thank you for reading, and I'd like any feedback you have to give.
The hermit stepped out of his shack and into the sun. He covered his eyes with a leathery hand, squinted up into the sky. The sun seemed to be closer to day than usual – and moving quicker. The day would shorten if it was. Walking onto the hardpan dirt, he hurried around to the side of his shack where a split-rail fence surrounded his little garden. Rooted more in sand and loose dirt than in real soil, it was difficult to maintain, but not impossible. The straw-man propped in the corner helped keep the crows away, and they were as destructive on the few green plants as the sun was. He pulled a wide-brimmed hat off the straw-man and slipped it onto his own head. His eyes not yet adjusted to the sun and unable to see, he turned and stumbled over a rough patch of ground. He dropped to one knee. He rubbed the knee for a minute before standing and gathering his robes around him.
Glancing back up at the sun again, he blinked his eyes and struck out down the slight hill, away from the shack and toward the pen where he kept his goats. Tending the goats was at least a thrice-a-day venture: milking and feeding the morning, feeding in the evening, and watering them early in the afternoon. But it was a necessary thing. It took him only a few minutes to shuffle down the bare hill to the pen and check the trough. It wasn’t empty, but would be within the hour. He sighed as he always did, and reached for the nearby pump handle. Faded by sun and time, the once-blue handle was now barely gray. He used both hands to loosen it. When most of the shrill squeaking stopped, he pumped using only one hand. He rested his other arm atop the short fence and leaned against it. As he waited for the trickle of water to appear, he looked north toward the horizon.
The vast wall of the Kohina Mountains scratched a jagged line across the sky, its edges blurred by the clouds that frequently gathered across the peaks. He’d traveled there once. Storms of rain were common in the spring and summer there; in the fall the peaks were blanketed with frozen water –what the locals called snow. He’d played in it like a child, never having seen anything like it before. He’d seen it a few times, but in the Gethren Mountains to the west, where the tinkers lived. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, he’d load his cart and push it across the desert floor and up into their town. He’d trade what he could for more seeds and more wood. Nearly all the wood on his plot came from the trees high above the tinkers’ town. It would take him three or four days to make the journey, but in their vehicles, they could bring the load of wood in less than a day.
The first trick of water had started to splash down the chute and into the trough. He switched positions and worked the pump with his left hand now, found himself staring south into the rocky, rugged mountains he’d never visited. He had dealings with the dragon-men, but no interest whatsoever in visiting them. He’d never return from a visit to their town, or their village, or their city, or whatever it was they lived in. He’d never given them any reason to take him, but going to them would likely be reason enough.
The trickle had finally become a flow and he focused on working the handle for a few minutes more, until the trough was full. Before he was done, he picked up a bucket lying on the ground and sat it upright. He swiveled the pump-chute to fill it. He wasn’t dry yet, but it couldn’t hurt to have a little more in the house.
When he’d filled the bucket, he released the handle and rubbed his hands together. His fingers ached just a bit, but it worried him. If the time came when it hurt too much to work the pump, he wouldn’t be able to survive out here. He might have to go elsewhere. Maybe the tinkers would take him in. He started up the hill, bucket in hand. As he did, he glanced east, toward the vast plain and mountain-less horizon. As always, the only things he saw there – excepting the scrub brush and sedge grass – were the three flat-topped stone obelisks. Each stood a mere three feet high, about three feet across. Each was sixty feet from the others, in a perfect triangle. All manner of images were carved into the cylindrical sides, but he didn’t know what any of them meant. He knew what they did, and that was enough.
He was halfway up the hill when the ground began to rumble.
He stopped where he was and glanced up, into the sun, then down toward the obelisks. It couldn’t be. The rumbling continued. A crow cawed and flew away from the garden, frightened by something more than a straw-man. Another one flew up out of a patch of scrub near one of the obelisks, its wings furiously beating as it escaped the tremors.
He started to hurry up the hill. A few seconds later, thunder boomed along the sky. A dark cloud started to form directly over the stones. He stopped and pulled the hat from his head, wiped his brow. The stones themselves were vibrating. This was wrong, all wrong. Above, the clouds congealed into a roiling black ceiling. Thunder boomed again as a bolt of lightning leapt from the cloud to one of the obelisks. He rubbed his eyes. A second and third bolt struck the remaining stones. The obelisks shuddered, the rumbling grew louder.
This was entirely wrong.
The shuddering stopped and the obelisks grew, emerging from the ground, rising above the hardpan. No longer ornamental stones, they rose as columns hidden under the desert. As they climbed from sand to sky, the thumping in his chest became a hammering. He’d never seen this happen – not this early. This was nearly two months early.
He turned and ran toward his shack, staggering and stumbling up the hill. Behind and above him, lightning struck again, dancing from the flat summit of one rising spire to another. His hat fell from his fingers as he scrambled up the bare hill. As he burst through the open doorway into his home, the obelisks climbed past forty feet. He rushed around the table and chairs in the center of the room. Most of his belongings were on open shelves or hung from hooks, but there was one cabinet in the room, one cabinet with doors that closed.
He dropped onto the foot of his bed and flung open the bottom door of the cabinet. Inside lurked the device given to him by the dragon-men, the device he used to call and alert them whenever the obelisks rose. He’d never called them this early, and he didn’t know if anyone would be listening. They might be angry, but he knew they’d be furious if they found out that he hadn’t alerted them. He reached for the device and pushed the red button on its front.
The button clicked, glowed red. The small black box hidden in the cabinet hummed loudly enough to be heard over the rumble outside. Three switches protruded from the front of the device, but he was only supposed to touch the first one. He flipped up the switch; a burst of noise that the dragon-men called “static” filled the room. He found the coiled cord atop the device and the palm-sized piece attached to it. He wrapped his hand around the piece. There was one button here, and he had to push it to talk into it.
“Dragon, are you there?” He released the button and waited a few seconds. No one answered.
“Dragon, are you there?” He released the button again. He waited before calling a third time.
“This is Dragon. Is that you, Hermit?” The old man didn’t know the other voice, but it seemed to know him.
“Yes, this is Hermit.”
“What do you need, Hermit?” The voice sounded angry, but he couldn’t be sure. Living alone for so long meant one never quite knew how other people were thinking.
“It’s the obelisks, Dragon. They’re rising now.”
“What? Hang on, Hermit.”
He waited, holding the device until a new voice came out of the black box in the cabinet.
“Hermit, did you say the obelisks are rising now?”
“Yes, right now.”
“They’re early. Are you sure, Hermit?”
“Okay. It’s going to take us a little longer than usual to get some people up there. You know what to do.”
“Good. Hermit, you better not be wrong.”
He considered answering, but felt that he’d been dismissed. Leaving the cabinet door open and the device on, he set the hand-piece on his bed. He went back to the doorway. The obelisks had risen to about sixty feet in height. The rumbling had stopped and the clouds had begun to disperse. Perhaps they’d spew a little rain before they did; they had before.
He looked west, wondering if they tinkers were watching. Would they be able to get here before the dragon-men arrived? For that matter, would the dragon-men get here before the new arrivals started to appear?
Two months early – something was going to go wrong. This he knew.
Chapter 1 – Underpass
It wasn’t the story that sold him, as much as it was the faces of the homeless people that had told it to him, blank but watchful, like jurors in the courtroom. A half-circle of eight, all insisting in the truth of this urban legend – a legend he’d never heard, seemingly one only the street people of San Diego knew.
“Who’s been to this other world?” he asked. A few glanced around the half-circle at the others. One looked down. One looked up at the overpass above them. The rest just looked toward him.
“Reggie went,” a young woman in jeans and a long sweatshirt said. A couple of others countered her, said he hadn’t.
“Can I speak to Reggie?” He aimed the question at the young woman. She shook her head in return. Dirty long hair moved.
“He went there. He can’t come back.”
“Oh, that’s right. It’s a one-way trip, you guys said.”
“It is,” answered one of the older men, nodding. His matted beard scraped against the top of his shirt.
“Did anyone see Reggie go?” He glanced back at the young blond woman. Her eyes flashed then looked down.
“Anyone else go to the other world?” This time they glanced from one to another. “Little Dwayne went,” one said. “Mama Taylor went,” another answered. “John Parson,” a third said.
“None of them came back?”
They shook their heads or mumbled “no.”
“Has anyone seen these people since they left? Did they go together or separately?”
Separately, they said. Little Dwayne went a year ago. Mama Taylor a few months before that. John Parson a couple years ago. Nobody had seen any of them since they left. Chances were good that they’d either found a new place to stay, or more likely that something bad had happened to them; it was common among the homeless population anywhere to come to a bad end.
“So how do you know they’ve gone to another world? If they don’t come back to tell you, how do you know?”
“It got to be better,” a thin, balding woman somewhere between 50 and 70 answered. “Or they’d come back, right?”
“What if they just found a better place to stay?”
“Up in North County?” the bearded man responded, “don’t think so. Cops there would run them off. Best places are in the city, unless they found someone to take care of them.”
“All of them?” the young woman asked. “We’d have heard something.”
“What if something bad happened to them?” he asked, tapping his pen against his camera.
“Nah,” a small, hunched-over man waved his hands. “Something happens to one of us, someone hears.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “Do I have time for another question?”
“Beside that one?” the balding woman said. He smiled at her, nodding.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Who started this story? Who was the first person to talk about it – John Parson?”
“What do you mean?” the bearded man asked.
“Who first started talking about it?”
The balding woman spoke:
“I don’t understand. We’ve always talked about it.”
The others nodded. The hunched-over man waved his hands again.
“I heard the story first time I was on the street – twenty-five, twenty-six years ago. It was old then.”
He thanked them for their time, handed out five-dollar bills, and sent them on their way with bottles of juice and bags of burgers. As they shuffled away, he was not surprised to see the young woman lingering.
“Tell me about Reggie.”
She looked up, shuffling from foot to foot in thin shoes. “He went through that door,” she said.
“How do you know?”
She bunched her hands into fists and touched them together.
“Because I saw him go.”
* * *
About forty miles north, there’s a place where the interstate crosses another road, he had been told. It’s just a nothing little road, not dirt, just old pavement. It connects an outlying neighborhood with a bigger road. Almost no one used that road anymore, not since they connected that village to a new bypass to the west. Underneath the interstate, two retaining walls, north and south, kept the soil in place. On the north shadowed side was a door in the retaining wall. Painted gray on gray stone, it was practically invisible most of the time. Only when the sun shone on it from between the lanes above could it be seen. Through that door led a passage to another world.
So the homeless said.
* * *
“What do you mean you saw him go – you were there?”
“I was there,” she said, looking into his eyes. “I was going to go with him. Reggie and I were kind of together, but we were keeping it quiet. Nobody thought Reggie’d be into me, so they don’t think I went with him.”
“Okay,” he said. “Why do they say he didn’t go, with or without you?”
“Reggie was smart. He was a teacher before shit happened and he ended up here. Everyone says he’s too smart to believe that story.”
He nodded, making no comment.
“Why didn’t you go?”
“I was afraid. He vanished.”
“No. I mean he vanished. Right there in front of me, he opened the door and disappeared.”
“He went inside and you didn’t see him again.”
“No, God damn it! He vanished! He went inside, but vanished before he could get all the way in.” She looked down at her feet. She pushed one of her lightly-shod feet forward, hokey-pokey style, and rested it on the heel. “His foot was the last thing I saw, while he went in. But you could see through it. You could see the door and stuff through it.”
“And you didn’t follow him?”
“No. I couldn’t. I got scared. I opened the door, though,” she said, looking back up at him. “There was nothing but a tunnel. He wasn’t there.”
“Could he have gone down the tunnel?”
“No. It just ended in a wall. He wasn’t there.”
* * *
He’d heard the story his third night out with the homeless. Taking photos of them for a photo essay had raised him to a fairly casual level of interaction with them. In direct opposition to getting as many shots of them frowning or looking depressed, he had spent a few hours trying to get positive emotions on their faces – contentment, satisfaction, curiosity, even the occasional flirty look. While trying to coax a smile of an elderly Mexican woman, he asked her to smile by phrasing it:
“Think of a better place!”
It hadn’t worked, but the response from the man behind him had:
“You mean that place up in North County?”
North County – that stretch of San Diego north of the city center – was considered by many to be a fairly nice place to live. But never had Michael heard it referred to as A Better Place. Focusing his attention on the man, he had listened to the unknown urban legend for the first time. He told the bearded man to gather up a few others who knew about it. He wanted to find out more. Armed with burgers and juice, he’d heard eight variations on a theme. Of all them, Reggie’s story – the girl’s story – captured his attention the most.
* * *
“Where is it?” Michael asked the young woman. She shrugged in response.
“You don’t know, or you don’t want to tell me?”
“I know. At least I think I can find it. I don’t want to tell you.”
She suddenly sat, pulling her thin legs up to her chest. She began to rock.
“Why?” he repeated.
“I’d like to see it.” He crossed his legs and sat on the pavement across from her. He preferred not to loom unless he needed to.
“I know. But I mean you’ll go. You’ll go inside, and you’ll vanish like Reggie.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“I am. I saw it. There’s another world and you’ll go to it.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You’re not taking me seriously,” she said, standing. “If you’re not going to take me seriously, I’m leaving.”
“Wait.” He kept his voice low and level.
“Why do you want me to know about this, but take it seriously?”
“Because it’s real. I saw it.”
“Any other reason?”
“Uh-huh.” She looked down again. “I want to go back.”
“You want to go back, go through the door?”
“Yeah. I need you to take me. I’m going back.”
* * *
“Dave, it’s Michael – Michael Turner.” He held the cell phone to his head, threw himself back on the ratty couch.
“Jesus Christ, Mike. How are you?”
“Great. I’m great, Dave. Never better.”
“Um…sorry I asked. Have you been out… long?”
“Out of jail, Dave? Yeah, I’ve been out a while. But I had a make a trip back to rehab a couple months ago. Turns out I’ve been able to kick the drugs, but I’m still a drunk.”
“Um…Mike. I don’t know what to say.”
“How about asking me what I need?”
“What do you need, Mike?”
“Thanks for asking.” He leaned forward on the couch, rested his feet on the cinderblock-and-lumber “coffee table.” “Are we still keeping records on missing homeless?”
“Yeah, Dave. By “we” I mean, those San Diego County social workers who haven’t done time and are still employed.”
“Yeah, we do.”
“Can you look up a name for me?”
Michael was quiet a moment, glanced down at his camera case, resting on the table. It was the only thing of any value in the room, the only real evidence of his life before the shit happened. It was a gift from Holly, the last one she gave him. Originally for nothing more than his hobby, the digital Minolta remained that one thing he couldn’t let go.
“Sorry, Dave. I’m working as a photographer now. A couple of homeless folks I met told me about some missing people.”
“Do you have their names?”
He glanced down at the memo pad open next to the case. “One of them is named John Parson. Another was called Little Dwayne. There was also Mama Taylor and some guy they just called Reggie.”
“Well, I can tell you this: I knew Mama Taylor. Her name was Rose. She vanished a year ago or more. No one’s seen her.”
“You knew her?”
“Yeah. I worked her case. Sweet woman, everyone’s mama. You know the kind.”
“Someone said she headed up north, but they didn’t know where she had gone.”
Michael sat back against the couch. “Really?”
“That’s all I got. I can look up Parson and the others. Might not get anything, then again I might. Can I call you at this number?”
“Sure. Can you do it today?”
“I’ve got an appointment tomorrow, middle of the day. I’d like to know before that.”
“If I can get it, you’ll get it,” Dave said. “Hey, this is on the level, right?”
“Of course. I can’t see that you’re doing anything very wrong.”
“Except sharing information with a former social worker.”
“And alcoholic ex-jailbird. Let’s not forget that.” Michael raised his middle finger into the air.
“Sure. I heard you were bouncing over at one of the bars. Didn’t you used to do that a long time ago?”
“Long time ago, I did. Not now, man. I’m almost forty. I’m too old to bounce.” He glanced up at the exposed bar in the corner that acted as his closet. A black shirt, marked “Security” on the front and with a biohazard symbol on the back, hung over the metal tube.
“Okay. I just wanted to make sure that this was as on-the-up-and-up as we can get. I don’t need you trying to hunt down anyone or something.”
“Not going to happen, Dave. I don’t need addresses. I just want to know if they’ve disappeared.”
“Okay. I’ll let you know as soon as I can. So, where are you living now?”
“I got a good place downtown.”
“Glad to hear it. Hope everything works out for you.”
“Me, too. Thanks.” He flipped the phone closed. He set the phone on the table and set his feet on the threadbare carpet beneath him.
* * *
“If you want to go back so bad, why are you afraid I’ll go?” Michael asked the young woman, who was leaning against the door in his passenger seat. She held a backpack in her lap, protectively. She was wearing the same clothes, including the same thin tennis shoes.
“I’m afraid you’ll go first and I’ll get scared and not go.”
“Fair enough. You go first. You’re going to let me get some pictures, right?”
“Uh-huh. You want to take my picture because I’m pretty?”
Aside from the missing tooth low in her smile, and the dirt in her hair and on her face, and the smear of acne along her jaw, she was pretty. He started to answer with a glib “yep!”, but saw her tense.
“No. I just want to record this the best way I can. He motioned to the back seat, where his camera case sat beside the duffel bag she’d insisted he bring. “I want a record if this turns out to be true.”
“It is true. And I go first, remember.”
“My turn,” she said, squirming in her seat. “Have you ever hurt anyone – I mean really hurt them?”
His vision blurred as memories invaded. Holly lay in his lap, bleeding, broken. She muttered to him, words he couldn’t hear. Words that he assumed were “why, why?” For a moment he smelled her blood, thick and cloying, in the car.
“Yeah,” he said when his vision cleared. “Yeah, I have.”
* * *
They were about halfway there when his phone rang for the first time. He checked the screen: Sandra. He flipped it open and said hello.
“Michael, it’s Sandra. How are you?”
“I’m doing okay, sis. How are you guys?”
“Good. Steven’s going to be graduating next Saturday. Any chance you can get up here to see it? He’s actually asked if you were coming.”
Warmth washed across him. He turned and saw the girl pointedly not listening. He smiled at her; she smiled back.
“I’d love that,” he said. “Tell me when and where. I’ve even got a suit that still fits.”
* * *
“It’s Dave. I’ve got a little bit of information for you.”
Michael cradled the phone under his chin. The girl was watching the road carefully now, watching for one particular underpass.
“John Parson we’ve got on file as missing. No one has seen him for a couple years now. But he was a mental case, Jack. He could have gone off the grid, gone somewhere else, or been locked up – probably under a different name.”
“I got nothing on Little Dwayne. We’ve had a few Dwaynes in the system, but none that I see are missing.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“I know. Probably just a nickname. Now I’ve got something on Reggie. We’ve had one recent Reggie. Reggie Blakely. He was a history teacher, got laid off, bank took his house. Wife left him and took the kids. He was pretty stable, though. It was his ex who reported him missing.”
“How long ago?”
“About a month. What have you found?”
“I don’t know,” Michael said, watching the girl from the corner of his eye. “It’s probably nothing. People talking.”
“Well, this guy was taking advantage of some programs, trying to get his life together. He was getting some vocational help; one of the good ones.”
“Yeah. One thing: he seemed to be involved with a woman a few years younger than he.”
“Really?” He glanced at her again.
“That’s what they say. Blond girl. No one has a name for her, but he was heard calling her “J” a couple of times, and “Belle” another time.
“The police are looking for her. They’d like to ask her a few questions.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“You okay? You sound funny.”
“I’m fine. I’m just on my way to the appointment. Anything else?”
“Thanks, Dave. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome, man. Do me a favor and try to stay out of trouble, okay?”
“I’ll give it a game attempt, I promise.”
Dave laughed, said farewell, and hung up. Michael flipped the phone closed against his chin and set it in the console.
“You know,” he said to the girl. “I feel like an ass. I haven’t even asked you your name.”
“It’s Jenny,” she said, looking out the side window. “Jenny Bell.”
* * *
No exit ramp led to the road below. The narrow gravel shoulder looked inviting, but he had no interest in getting towed. Instead, he drove past the underpass that Jenny had pointed out, to the next ramp. He pulled into a service station parking lot and checked his highway guide. Finding the route, he drove another circuitous three miles through suburban neighborhoods, rural farmland, and a stretch of gravel. He approached the interstate underpass and pulled to a stop underneath it. She jumped out, pointing at the nearest support pillar.
“See!” she said, “there’s the sign.”
He got out and read the sign, in blue spray paint:
2 Anothr World
“You’ve got to be kidding.” He took his Minolta out of the bag and took a few shots of the graffiti for completion’s sake. When he had finished, he realized that Jenny had moved about fifty yards away, where the sun was shining on a bit of gray retaining wall. He went to her.
A door sat flush in the stone wall, painted the exact gray shade as the stone. It was flush with the wall, and without the light shining on it, it would have been nearly impossible to find. The door handle was small, like a cabinet pull. Hinges weren’t visible, which meant they’d have to push it open. Below the handle, a padlock and hasp – also gray – seemed to secure it. He knelt in front of the door and looked over the lock. A moment later he realized the hasp was just pressed against the doorjamb, not attached. He pulled the hasp away; the padlock swung aside. He reached for the handle.
“Wait!” Jenny grabbed his hand. “I have to go first.”
“I’m just opening the door,” he said, turning the handle. The door creaked briefly, resisting, before swinging open. Inside was a short tunnel, ending in a wall – all of it constructed from the same gray stone as the retaining wall. He stood.
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
“Because I know what will happen. I’ll vanish.”
“Are you nervous about the other side?”
“Why? How do you know it’ll be a better place?”
She cocked her head and frowned.
“Anyplace has got to be better than this.” Still holding her backpack in both hands, she started to walk forward.
“Wait!” She stopped.
“Let’s do this right. I want to get a couple of pictures, and there’s something I want you to do.”
She seemed to shrink in on herself.
“I’ve got some rope in the car. I’d like to tie it to you, so I can pull you back if I need to.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t like being tied up.”
“I can attach it to your belt loop, or your backpack.”
“No.” She brought the backpack up in front of her again.
“All right.” He held up both hands. “Then can you promise me – and I mean promise me that you’ll step inside then come back out so I can see you?”
“Um…okay. For another picture?”
“I can do that.”
“Good.” He snapped a few shots of her in front of the open door.
“I’m ready,” she finally said.
“Wait just one second,” he said, adjusting the camera to take a burst of shots. He looked up at her pale, somewhat-pretty face. “Did you know the police are looking for you?”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding. She turned to face the door then turned back.
“What did you do? How did you really hurt someone?”
“I killed my wife, Holly,” he said after a moment.
She stared at him. “Are you planning to kill me?”
“Good. Here I go.” She turned back again and stepped through the doorway.
He raised the camera, pressed the button, and watched as her foot touched the stone floor inside, and she vanished.