Saturday October 22, 1983
He stared at the bottom of the ravine and waited to shoot his friends. Some of the enthusiasm he felt when he took his position was gone. Tom Benton hoped this BB gun fight would turn out better than the last one. Last time they wandered around the woods, or hid, or both, and no one shot anyone before they ran out of time. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. The air was cool and crisp. He could hear cars on the road a quarter mile to the west as he listened for any sound of his friends…nothing so far. He could hear leaves move along the ground in the stiff breeze, and the dry swaying of twigs on the bare branches overhead. He looked at his watch: three o’clock. The fight would end in an hour.
He reached in his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He didn’t smoke, but planned to use the cigarettes as timers. He pulled out one of three packages of firecrackers from the back pocket of his jeans. The red paper wrapper made more noise than he wanted when he opened the package, but that didn’t bother him. His preference would be to use the noise to direct his friends to his advantage, but if he had to take a few shots to get the action going, he wasn’t opposed to the idea. Shooting people was the point of this game; the rest was simply buildup. He thought for a second, then decided to leave his rifle behind. The trap would work best from the bottom of the ravine. He would be vulnerable when he set it. Without the rifle his only option would be to run if they saw him.
He went down the side of the ravine slowly, quietly, facing forward and leaning back toward the slope. Ten feet from the bottom he stopped and looked up, scanning the top. Nothing. At the bottom, he lit a cigarette and tried not to inhale the smoke. He blew it out rather than suck it into his lungs. He crouched and swept the ground clear of leaves until he had a patch of dirt about the size of a dinner plate. He stuck the cigarette between the silver-gray strands of fuses, then bent it until it lay flat on top of the fuses with the burning end three quarters of an inch away from them. Satisfied with the noisemaker, he tucked the crumpled pack of cigarettes in his back pocket and hurried up the hill.
Picking up the rifle, he resumed his position and smiled in anticipation of shooting whichever guy came into the ravine first. His smile broadened to a grin when he decided to test a new theory—a little pyrotechnic prognostication. He pulled a disposable lighter form the slash pocket on the front of his jacket, then pulled a bottle rocket from the inside pocket. It had been a long time since he played with model rockets, but he figured the bottle rocket worked the same way. A two-stage engine: one to provide propulsion, the other to explode when the second one burned into it. If that was the case, impact with a solid object would force the second stage into the first stage and it would explode. Rockets were cool; missiles were cooler.
There was nothing to lose. If he hit his target—and he knew his chances of that were small—the rocket would either bounce off the guy and scare him in the process, or explode on impact—or some combination thereof. Even if he missed, the whizzing sound the bottle rocket made as it screamed through the air would make the unsuspecting-moron-in-a-BB-gun-fight look anywhere but the origin of the shot. That would give the originator time to shoot the poor bastard with the BB in the chamber. The firecrackers went off not long after he got comfortable in his position. He expected the noise but it still startled him. He grinned and shook his head at himself, then put the bottle rocket in the barrel and waited.
It didn’t take long. Two minutes after the sound of the firecrackers faded into the background, John slinked into the mouth of the ravine. He looked like some kind of SWAT Team member. The blond teenager walked as quietly as he could on his big feet, shoulders hunched, neck stuck out for no apparent reason. He held his air rifle at the waist, the barrel at a slight angle up. Just like John to be safety-minded in a BB gun fight. He turned his head left and right, looking for Tom. Tom wondered what flaw of human evolution made people forget to look up when they searched for threats. The Airborne Rangers had it right…death from above.
Blue smoke from the firecrackers was starting to sink to the bottom of the ravine. John wrinkled his nose at the smell. His suspicions didn’t come fast enough. He jerked his head to the side as the rocket hissed at him, and he saw a plume of blue smoke and blur of motion rush from the top of the ravine. With a startled cry that sounded far more feminine than masculine, he lurched and dove. There was a loud crack. He started to get up, dropping the rifle to push himself to his knees. A blinding white flash of pain hit him in the buttocks, driving him facedown in the leaves. “Damnit!” he screamed. “That hurts! I give, I give!”
His hands were in the air, muscles frozen as he listened. There was only silence. It made him more nervous than the sound of laughter would have. Tom was watching him; hunting him. Andy’s braying laughter would have sprayed all over the ravine and made it very clear who had the upper hand. The lack of laughter proved it was Tom. And it was never good when that little bastard had the advantage—he wouldn’t hesitate to use it. Every time.
He looked for the sound. Andy was at the top of the ravine on his left, his round face split in a grin. His Crossman was resting on his left knee, aimed toward the end of the ravine. He pointed at something and nodded. John followed his finger.
What the hell is he thinking? If he thinks I’m going to charge up the side of this thing just so he can get a shot at Tom while Tom takes a shot at me, he can forget it. For half a second he thought about shooting Andy himself, but gave up on the idea when he realized that would mean he’d end up with two guys shooting down at him if he did. He chose instead to give Andy the old one-fingered salute. John smiled and waved his other hand toward the mouth of the ravine. You go ahead buddy, he thought. It’s your turn to get shot.
Andy looked down at his friend and gave serious consideration to shooting the big lug. John must’ve realized what he was thinking. His grin faded and he looked around for someplace to hide. They stared at each other too long. He heard the small pop of a BB being fired—a split-second later the little ball smacked John’s leg. He howled and fell to the ground clutching his thigh, and swearing loudly.
Trying not to cackle, Andy hit the dirt. Tom must be hiding at the top of the ravine near where the two ends come together. He reached behind his back, under his jacket, and pulled out the BB pistol he bought for just such an emergency. He pushed himself up on his knees and eased back to his feet. His breath came in puffs as he glanced at the leaves on the ground and mustered his courage. BBs were small and wouldn’t break the skin, but they did hurt. Hurt a lot, in fact. The only thing that eased the pain was inflicting equal or greater pain on a good friend.
The woods were too quiet. Every slide of his feet rattled with exaggerated volume through the leaves. He listened intently, so intently his heartbeats sounded like thunder in his ears. A small sound in front and slightly to the right made him stop. He wasn’t sure what it was. It might have been a twig snapping somewhere, maybe under his own foot.
He pressed his shoulder against the trunk of a tree and peered around it. There was Tom, his back to him looking down at John in the ravine. Tom shook his head, probably deciding if it would be more fun to shoot John again or watch him try to figure out how to get out of the line of fire and then shoot him again. Andy put the butt of his rifle on the ground and leaned the barrel against the tree. He sucked in a deep breath and moved away. Tom didn’t turn. It looked like he was concentrating on John, which meant Andy didn’t have time to waste. He raised the BB pistol in a two-handed grip and pulled the trigger three times. There was no recoil, just three rapid pfft, pfft, pffts. Three smacks of BBs colliding with Tom’s back reached his ears as he jerked behind the tree. He was panting, not from the fast move but from the exhilaration of shooting prey that can shoot back. There was supposed to be a thunk as Tom hit the ground in pain, but he didn’t hear one. A rifle shot at that range would have put him on the ground. Evidently the pistol shots didn’t pack as much pain. Still, three hits should have done something.
Tom was in pain, but not agony. Even through his thick jacket and the sweater under it, there was no way to mistake the stab of a small lead ball smashing into the body at five hundred feet per second. He wasn’t sure how many times he’d been hit; the stinging pains merged on his back in one big splat of ticked off nerves. He gritted his teeth under tight lips and resisted the urge to cuss. He let his air rifle fall. A small part of his brain considered John and dismissed him as a threat—he couldn’t climb the slope fast enough. He wouldn’t be there in time to help Andy. A cold grin crossed his lips and made him almost forget the pain. Standing calmly, he made no effort to hide and listened as he looked into the trees. Seconds passed, then what felt like a minute.
Andy was still hiding. This was now a game of patience and preparation. His skin burned from the BBs, but there was no way to tell from the smile on his lips. Time for a little psychobabble. “You bought a pistol, didn’t you?” His voice echoed in the cold air. No reply, just the sounds of John crashing his way up the ravine. The guy was as subtle as a lawnmower. “I suppose using a pistol isn’t cheating. We never said it’s against the rules.” He didn’t mention his own pistol and grinned when he pulled it from the shoulder holster under his jacket to hold it in front of him, his legs spread to shoulder width. He stared straight ahead, but he was looking for movement from the corners of his eyes.
With a roar Andy dove from behind the tree, rolled three times and came up shooting. It was a good move—not very smooth, but good. By the time his eyes found Tom and focused, he’d sent three more BBs at the little guy. They missed. His eyes locked with Tom’s. They widened when they saw his pistol and Tom’s half-grin that made his face look like a wink was on the way. The wink of an executioner with a warped sense of humor.
He didn’t take time to think. He shot. So did Tom. They were only about thirty feet apart, both shooting as fast as they could pull their triggers. Andy ran out of ammo first. Six of his thirteen shots were gone before their standoff, but Tom’s was full. By the time the shooting stopped, both were lying on the ground rolling in pain. They laughed and cussed at each other in whispers through clenched teeth.
“Truce!” Andy shouted as he threw himself on his back and laughed in puffs at the sky. “Man that hurts. Oh man.” He sat up and curled his shoulders toward his knees, turned his head and looked over the ground at Tom. “Was that all sixteen shots?” He laughed again and was sorry he did. It brought out a wince and a wheeze.
Tom wobbled on his knees. His angular face was split in a blend of grin and grimace. In answer to Andy’s question he raised the pistol and shot him in the thigh.
“Damn it!” Andy shouted. “A simple no would have been enough!”
John stopped trying to be quiet and charged up the hill toward the shouting. He crashed through the brush and found them leaning against a tree, laughing and trying to catch their breath. “What did you do to each other?”
Tom grinned, looked at Andy, and winked. “Do you think he really wants to know?” Andy nodded. Tom returned the nod, looked at Andy, smiled at John, said, “This,” and shot John in the leg. The guy didn’t appreciate the humor of the situation. He was too busy biting back a scream as he fell to the ground clutching his leg. Andy laughed until he had to wipe tears from his eyes with a knuckle. His laughter was infectious.
Pistols empty—they were only halfway sure Tom’s was empty—they decided it was time to go home. Just before they left the woods and entered the cul-de-sac at the end of Tom’s street, he stopped. Andy and John stood next to him, silent. Tom pointed at a small red pickup truck parked in the roundabout with the passenger side toward them.
They could see the heads and shoulders of two of their mutual friends poking over the top of the front and back of the truck. It was Mike and Greg. Their eyes slide over the woods as they scanned the trees. Both guys held BB guns. In Greg’s case it was a little kid’s BB gun with a cocking handle action rather than a pump. Andy laughed behind his fist, wondering if the BB gun was a real Red Rider with a compass in the stock, like in the movie A Christmas Story. He turned and mouthed, “Ambush?”
Tom nodded and his eyes glinted in the sun with an amused blue flash. He pointed at John and gestured to the right in a half-circle. Andy waited for Tom to turn to him. He looked at him and cocked his head to the left. Tom nodded, pointed at himself, then the BB pistol strapped to his side, then at the truck. He watched them sneak to their positions while his heart beat faster and he tried to look calm. The last thing he wanted to do was spook the two guys behind the truck. Shooting them and thwarting their ambush would be the perfect end to the perfect BB gun fight.
The guys were going to shoot him the second he walked out of the woods. That was alright; he could handle it. He hoped they would miss, thought at least one of them would miss, and decided he could live with the worst case scenario of both shots hitting him. Their little popguns wouldn’t hurt much, but they didn’t know that. Neither one of them had been shot yet. He took two steps over the mown grass and heard Mike shout, “Now!” Both guys fired, and both guys missed. Tom laughed, dropping the air rifle and pulling the pistol from the holster slowly, more for show than force.
Mike and Greg stood up straight when they realized Tom was still on his feet. His ugly black pistol took them by surprise and their faces showed it. Neither wanted to find out what it felt like to take a hit from the ugly thing in Tom’s hands. Mike moved first. “Sorry, Tom. We thought those other guys would be with you. We wouldn’t have ganged up on you on purpose.”
Tom lowered the pistol and smiled. If either one of them knew him better, they would have known the smile on his face was as genuine as it was warm. “I’m glad you guys fight fair… Two on one isn’t fair. Then again, neither is three on two.” They looked at each other, not understanding what he meant. Before they could figure it out, they felt hot flashes of pain from John and Andy’s shots from the side. By the time they recovered, the three targets of their ambush were facing them. Tom stood in front, the pistol in his left hand pointed at the ground. Andy was on their left with his pistol trained on Mike’s chest. John stood casually on Greg’s right with his air rifle on his hip, pointed in the direction of what he hoped was his belt buckle. They looked at the other three. Tom wished he had a picture of their faces. “Checkmate.”
Neither teen dared move toward their BB guns. They got up slowly, laughing nervously at first, then with enthusiasm. Greg coughed and said, “You win.”
Tom let them sweat for a minute. “See you in school Monday.” A laugh and a shrug, then, “Do you want us to invite you to the fight next time, or should we save you the trouble of coming all the way out here and just shoot you at home?” Mike shook his head. His red hair shuffled in the stiff breeze. His ass still hurt from the shot. He didn’t need this kind of fun in his life…not now, not ever again.
The pep rally was loud, obnoxious, and unnecessary. Other than getting out of class and a chance to stare at the current girl of his dreams, Tom would rather have been in a dentist’s chair. He had nothing against football but he had no love for it either. He sat on the bleachers and stole glances at a dark-haired girl on the other side of the gym. She had brown hair, a small waist, terrific breasts, and a pair of legs that drove his mind to fantasy in a matter of seconds. He figured she knew about her legs and their devastating effects—she showed them off frequently and well. He blamed them for the C he got in biology. If he’d spent half as much time studying that crap as he did the curves of her legs and hips, he might have scored better on the tests. He certainly wasn’t scoring with her, so why not study the course material?
Now that their junior year had begun, he was pretty sure she would never be his girlfriend. It didn’t help when the big bohunk of a boyfriend of hers, a basketball player, squeezed her around the waist while they jumped up and down and cheered the football players running around on the floor. At least he got to see her jump; things could be worse. He tried not to roll his eyes when the teacher dressed as the school mascot rode around the gym on a Harley.
The rest of the day passed quickly. Tom went home, packed a small bag, ate supper with his family, and walked into the woods for his weekend campout with Andy and John. Much like their BB gun fights, they just met somewhere in the woods. Unlike the days before they got kicked out of their Boy Scout Troop—which had, strangely enough, rules against playing catch with axes—their camp outs had no agenda, no duty roster. They went, they did what they wanted, and they went home when it was time.
He found a good spot near the power lines that cut through the property about fifty yards from the two-track that ran along the towers. The ground was relatively flat and there was more than enough deadwood nearby to support a fire. He heard his friends coming, saw the beams of their flashlights through the trees, and smiled. They would have seen his fire sooner if they let their eyes get used to the dark instead of blinding themselves with flashlights. He’d learned a few things in the Boy Scouts in addition to the merits of not throwing hatchets. By the time they crashed through the brush and found the campsite, he was finished with his stew. He laughed when he saw them: John carried a frame backpack and it looked full. His air rifle was lashed to the frame with the barrel pointed up, like a good boy.
Andy was huffing and puffing. He wasn’t out of shape; he just didn’t know how to camp. He carried a duffel bag in his right hand and a rolled up sleeping bag under his arm. In his left hand, held very awkwardly, were his air rifle and a folding camp chair. His cheeks were red with effort under his thin black hair. His rapid breath came in puffs in the cold October air. He dropped the bag to the ground. With a grin and a flourish of his hand, he let the rifle fall so he could toss the chair in the air. He caught it and unfolded it on its way down. With a little bow of his head, he sat in the chair. “Couldn’t camp closer to the road, could you? It’s bad enough you talk us into coming out here to shoot each other. Do you have to add to my discomfort by making me hike until my nose runs?” He pulled a red bandanna from his back pocket and blew his nose. Tom gave him a flat stare and stifled an urge to laugh. He could have sent a taxi to pick Andy up and he still would’ve found something to grouse about.
John dropped his pack without greeting Tom and crashed off into the darkness. They could hear him grunt and snap branches as he went. Andy and Tom exchanged a look. A few seconds later, he stepped back into the glow of the fire carrying a log the size of a small tree stump, and dropped it to the ground on its end. Then he brushed the top clean with the palm of his hand and wiped the hand on the back of his leg. His breath came in short gasps when he finally sat on the log. With a smile and a nod, he finally acknowledged Tom.
Tom arched an eyebrow. “That looks heavy. Was there another one out there?”
John thought for a second as he tried to catch his breath. “I think I saw one. Whoever owns this land must not have hauled out the whole tree after he cut it.”
“I’d ask you to get one for me…” Tom paused. “But you probably couldn’t carry another one this soon after that one.” John didn’t dignify the taunt with an answer. He stalked back into the woods.
Andy looked over the fire at Tom. “You been reading Tom Sawyer?”
Tom tossed a fistful of sticks on the fire. “I’d feel guilty if I had a conscience. I only read it to see if he gets a shot at Becky.”
“Obviously you haven’t read the book.”
John crashed through the brush before Andy could reply. The chunk of wood in his arms was bigger than the first. He grunted under the weight of it, but his grin had “in your face” written all over it. It shook the ground when he dropped it at Tom’s feet. “Don’t try to trick me into getting another one. I only brought you that one because I’m a nice guy.”
“You’re a very nice guy,” Tom said as he got comfortable on the log. “How far away were you when you figured out I could’ve carried one all by myself?”
“Thirty feet.” John chuckled.
Tom winked at Andy over the fire. “Not the fastest thinker in the world, is he?”
“He’s solar-powered. It’s dark out.”
They spent the rest of the evening talking over the fire. None of the three wanted to admit it, but they were afraid of what was going to happen after graduation. Tom wanted desperately to go to West Point and become a career army officer. Andy was interested in law and politics. He didn’t care where he went to college because he already had his eye on the Detroit College of Law. John wanted to go into business, any business that would let him make a lot of money.
The fire was a bed of coals when they decided to turn in. John dug a folding shovel from the bottom of his backpack and they put the fire out with dirt. Once it was out, they crawled in their tents. John and Andy shared Andy’s. Tom had his own.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep when something woke him. He lay on his back in the tent; eyes open, staring at nothing. He was a light sleeper, but rarely woke during the night unless something woke him. Something had changed. Didn’t feel right. It was a little spooky. There weren’t any animals to fear in the Michigan woods unless you were afraid of white-tailed deer. There were bears up north, but the only things to worry about in Southwestern Michigan were raccoons in the garbage.
He couldn’t hear anything but the normal small sounds of the night. Then he heard a low rumble. It was more thrum than rumble—rhythmic, not mechanical. Staring up at the darkness, he tried to figure out what it was. A flash of light like lightning illuminated the tent. He flinched and waited for thunder. It didn’t come. The ground pulsed and rumbled under his back. There was another flash of light, this time a brilliant red. Still no thunder. The ground shook again.
Andy’s voice floated from the other tent. “Tom? What’re you up to out there?” He sounded like he wanted to laugh, even if he was the butt of the joke.
“Nothing. I thought it was you guys.”
Another rumble broke the night. “Maybe you should check it out. Unless you’re afraid…”
Tom smiled through his nervousness. “I see I’m not the only one who read Tom Sawyer.” He waited for Andy to respond. All he heard was his friend’s laughter and John’s snores. “Is he still asleep?”
“Snoring like an old man.”
Tom shook his head. “Give him a change of status, will ya?”
Andy was more than happy to comply. “You got it!” He pulled his arm out of the sleeping bag, closed his hand into a fist, and slammed the side of it on John’s sternum with a satisfying thud. “Wake up!”
Tom heard a thunk and rush of expelled air. The string of curses following the thunk were proof John was now awake. Another round of strange lightning and thrumming ground wiped the grin from his face and set his pulse racing.
“Tom, get out of your tent and see what’s going on!” Andy shouted.
John answered. “Because this was your idea, jackass!”
“Good point.” He hated it when they were right. He grabbed the flannel shirt he was using for a pillow and pulled it on. The ground thrummed again. And again. A triple flash of light illuminated the nylon. His eyes locked on his watch in the light—three seventeen AM. He wasn’t sure why it mattered what time it was, but knowing helped calm him a little. He unzipped the tent and stuck his head out. Wind shattered the silence, coming and going in a circular pattern.
Leaves spun in eddies around him. He could hear them swish. He’d never felt wind do that. More flashes of light—this time greens and blues—brought his pulse up a few more notches. His mouth tingled as if he’d chewed aluminum foil. The last thing he wanted to do was admit he was afraid, but he was. The air felt strange when he crawled out, slow and sticky. Silver-white clouds surrounded the moon, casting it in films of pale gray darkness. The clouds moved swiftly in one direction, but the wind at ground level swirled around his ankles. He swallowed. Light flashed again from somewhere in the woods in front of him. He held his arm up to shade his eyes. Brilliant flashes of color blazed through the trees, making them look surreal and cartoonish.
He cleared his throat and tried to sound nonchalant. “Come on out guys. You really ought to see this.”
John’s muffled voice came through the tent. “I’m not going out there with young Indiana Jones. You go out there!”
“All right, ya big baby,” Andy scoffed. The tent rustled as he yanked his shirt and jacket over his head.
Tom looked at their tent and tried not to flinch when the ground thrummed under his feet. The tent changed colors with more blasts of light. He heard two quick zips when Andy opened the flap. His face flashed annoyance when he looked at Tom. His head and shoulders were out of the tent, hair sliding around his head in the wind. He rested on his knuckles and looked up. “If this is a joke, you went to too much trouble.”
“If this is how you look at three o’clock in the morning, you’re going to die a lonely man,” Tom laughed.
Andy opened his mouth to say something but it came out as a squawk. John’s booted foot retreated back into the tent as Andy’s face met the ground. Muttering under his breath, he scrambled to his feet, turned back to the tent and shouted, “You better watch your back tomorrow! I’ve got twelve hundred and sixty-eight BBs with your name on ‘em!”
“Now who’s the big baby?” John was still laughing when he stood next to Tom. The lights flashed through the trees. The wind—the strange circular wind—picked up speed. His laughter died in the air when he saw the trees.
“We have to check this out,” Tom said.
“I think we’d be better off if we just go back to my house and spend the night.” Andy tried to sound bored, but it didn’t fool his friends.
Tom shrugged. “Do what you want. I’m taking a look.” He started walking toward the trees.
John bumped Andy’s shoulder. “Go ahead, genius. I’m right behind you.” Andy looked at Tom’s back, then at John, then in the direction of the car. He flinched when the wind brought a branch crashing down in the darkness nearby. He took three running steps in Tom’s direction before he knew he’d made a decision. Andy frowned at their backs, then followed. “If there’s an alien spaceship out there, I’m never going to forgive you guys.”
The woods were tangled with thorny plants, fallen branches, and a variety of large and small trees. Only Tom moved with confidence. He was twenty feet ahead of the other two. His small frame let him slip through gaps they didn’t attempt. The multicolored lights flashed closer together as they climbed a slight grade. The wind was louder here, louder and faster, and Andy wished he could find something to laugh about, anything to lighten their mood. He knew his friends were as scared as he was—hoped they were, anyway—but if Tom was, it didn’t show.
They came out of the trees and stopped at a ledge, the ground in front of them cut sharply downhill. They’d been there before and were expecting to look down a hill at thirty yards of level sandy ground, then a water-filled ditch, then a cinder-covered incline to railroad tracks. There was a mobile home park on the other side of the tracks. Before they were old enough to shoot each other with BBs, they used to spend their time putting coins on the tracks and trying to find them after trains ran them over. They stopped doing that when they got tired of searching for coins they could never find.
This time the atmosphere was different. They shielded their eyes against the flashes of color. The ground thrummed powerfully under their feet. John staggered back a step; Andy clutched his arm to keep from falling. Tom leaned forward with his legs spread against the wind, looking like a ski jumper preparing to land. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back to my place?” Andy shouted over the wind. “I don’t know what’s happening on the planet Xenon, but I’m pretty sure I’d rather watch a porn movie in my basement! Wouldn’t you guys?”
They didn’t answer. Halfway down they saw the source of the lights…a vertical hole surrounded by brilliant colors. The center was dark but not entirely black. A thick darkness swirled in varying shades of dark purple, midnight blue, obsidian black, and tendrils of silver. They couldn’t see the mobile home park through the hole. Walls of slashing light surrounded the cacophony of darkness. The ground thrummed in throbbing sync with swirling green, blue, magenta, and silver slashes of light surrounding the light surrounding the darkness. It made Andy want to puke.
Tom turned and looked at them. The wind blew hard enough to rock him sideways, but he stood his ground. They couldn’t see his face in the glare behind him but his voice carried over the wind. “I’m going in!”
“I’m sorry,” Andy shouted. “I don’t think I heard you right!”
“Yeah, you did!” He threw a look over his shoulder. “There’s a hole big enough to drive a truck through! Don’t you want to see what’s on the other side?”
“I’ll tell you what’s on the other side,” John said. “A very steep, very hard hill!”
Tom looked at John, then turned his head and Andy felt his eyes. “You were right, man. He is a big baby!”
Andy returned Tom’s grin. He looked like he was about to plunge down the hill without another thought. Andy wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea, but the hole didn’t look like it was going away anytime soon. “Hang on a second!”
Tom stopped as Andy looked wildly around, then saw a broken branch about four inches in diameter a few feet to his right. He ran to it. “Let’s send this through first!”
Tom turned to John. “Grab that thing and throw it through the hole!”
“You forgot a word!”
Wind blew Tom’s hair over his eyes. He shoved it away with a jerk of his hand. “What word? Oh…please?”
Tom nodded. “Got it. Let’s throw that thing through the hole!”
The ground thrummed under their feet, hard. Andy didn’t like it. “Damnit! Let’s throw that thing in the hole now!”
John went ten feet down the hill and moved to the side. He had a hard time believing his eyes when he saw the hole was one-dimensional. Tom and Andy picked up the limb. “There’s no other side to this thing!”
Tom knew that. He studied it in the few seconds before John and Andy caught up with him. Nothing around them was making the lights. There was no electricity out there—no cords, no lamps. They couldn’t deny the existence of the thing in front of them; they couldn’t explain it. It just was. He looked at Andy three feet behind him, holding the other end of the branch. “You ready?” Andy nodded. “On three?” Andy nodded again. “One…two…three!”
They charged down the hill in leaping steps. When they got close to the hole, Tom pitched the limb ahead. Andy let go at almost the same time. The bark burned his hands as it slid under them, and a few branches scratched his face as they went by. He shoved. Both teens fell on their backs on the hill to stop themselves from following the branch into the hole. They didn’t hear it land on the other side, only a low rumble, and the ground shook. Andy closed his eyes, half expecting to see a blaze of white light through his eyelids. Tom stared at the swirling darkness. So much for the experiment. They didn’t know anything now than they knew before. He looked at Andy and didn’t shout, but they heard him say, “I’m going through.”
“The hell you are! You have no idea where that stick went!”
“I’ll let you know.” He leaped to his feet and charged down the slope to the black mouth of the hole. Without looking back—with no show of fear or thought of his own safety—Tom dove.
The hole in the world didn’t crash closed, didn’t flash closed. Slowly, inexorably, it fell in on itself until the view of the dimly lit mobile home park on the other side of the tracks was clear in the night. The flashing lights and thrumming ground were still. Andy didn’t remember falling on his butt, but it was firmly planted on the sand. His palms were flat against it and his elbows hurt from the impact. He stared at the mobile homes, only dimly comprehending—or trying to comprehend—what he just saw. Tom was gone. So was the hole. He ripped his eyes from what was no longer there and tried to focus on John’s silhouette against the light on the other side of the tracks. John was just standing there, arms hanging at his sides, shaking his head slowly.
Finally Andy coughed, "He’s gone.”
John found his voice. "He can’t be. There’s nowhere for him to go.”
Andy thought about getting to his feet but decided against it. He didn’t trust his legs. “No hole, no stick, no Tom. Got an explanation for that?” The air felt thick as they tried to catch their breath in the dark. He looked at John. “We should look for him.”
“Look where?” He moved up the hill and extended his hand. Andy grabbed his arm at the wrist and let him pull him to his feet. They stood there wet and cold, both dimly aware that they could never got back to the way things were only hours before. “Maybe we should call the cops,” he breathed. He had to say something.
Andy shook his head. “And tell them what? That our friend jumped through a hole in space, time, and the vacuum of trailerparkness, never to be seen again?”
John couldn’t take his eyes from where he had seen the unbelievable only moments before. “Do you have a better explanation for what happened?” Andy was staring down the hill with his mouth slightly open. “Come on! You’re the one with the fast answers!”
“Maybe.” He straightened his shoulders and sighed. “But he had the right answers… Most of the time anyway.”
John forced himself to turn and start back up the hill. “Come on… Let’s go back to the campsite and restart the fire. Put on some dry clothes and think about this. As far as I can tell, there’s not a damn thing we can do for him here.” Andy didn’t like the thought of walking away, but he couldn’t come up with a better plan. Or any plan. The only thing he was sure of was they were going to find Tom one way or the other, no matter where he went.
The walk back to the campsite felt like it took forever although it was only a quarter mile. Andy could hear John crash between the trunks and branches of small trees. The sounds of thorns sticking in his jeans confirmed he wasn’t dreaming. His wet clothes were cold and he felt water ooze between his toes in his soaked boots. The fire was still lit. John stared at the flames through the last of the trees in front of them. He was sure they put it out before they went to sleep, but couldn’t deny it was lit now. Orange-yellow flames snapped the air. Sparks rose toward the wet leaves above. “I thought we put that out.”
He could almost see Andy’s face in the light from the fire. “Then why is it still going?”
Andy stared straight ahead, transfixed. “Because that guy lit it again.”
John stiffened at the sound of the voice. He stared at the man sitting next to the fire with his back against the fallen tree a few feet from where Tom sat earlier. Flickering firelight shadows danced over the man’s face. His eyes were bright in the dim light. His beard, long and wild, flowed over the tattered robes on his chest. The man’s left arm was bent at an odd angle, his wrist limp over his long thighs. A rag, maybe a portion of his robe, was tied around his arm just below the left shoulder. Blood seeped through the rag and ran down his forearm, dripping in the shadows on the muddy ground. The fire snapped; John jumped. The man coughed—almost a dry chuckle—and blood spilled over his matted beard. He wheezed and looked down at his chest. John could see clotted blood at the top of his thin hair and couldn’t decide if the hair was bloody black or bloody gray. Andy wanted to shriek and run for the car, but something kept him locked in place. He whispered, “This is too weird for one night.”
The man pointed at them. His hand shook in the shadows. “Are you gong to stand there and look at me like a couple of imbeciles, or are you going to give aid to a wounded man?”
There was a sword at the man’s side; blood covered the blade and hilt. Chunks of what might have been flesh made Andy’s stomach to roll and the urge to run almost irresistible. How he could see the look on Andy’s face, he didn’t know, but he was sure he could. “Do not fear my sword, youngster. I’m not going to kill you.” The old man spat blood into the fire. “As it happens, we need each other…if only briefly.”
Andy looked sideways at John, swallowed a hunk of fear, and smiled. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back to my place for some late-night porn?”
John moved toward the fire and the wounded man. “What can we do to help?”
His eyes were dark over the fire, and the twist of his eyebrows deepened the shadows of his eye sockets. “Where is the third?”
“Beg your pardon?” Andy said.
“The third man. Your friend. Where is he?”
John answered. “He went through the hole.” His heart raced in his chest during the brief silence that quickly grew uncomfortable. “Is there something we can do to help you?”
“Do not worry over me.” The old man smiled through bloody lips. “You should worry more about your friend. Time is short—not for me, but for you.”
Andy moved closer. He wished he had a gun. His BB gun would be more than what he had. “Who the hell are you?”
“I told you not to worry about that.” The old man gave him a hawkish look with one eye. “Your friend went through Mythaelace. I felt him pass.”
“What’s Mythaelace?” John knelt by the man’s side and reached for his wounded arm. The old man twitched it away before he could touch it.
“Mythaelace was my means of escape. I should never have opened it.” He shook his head. Blood splashed from his mouth to his shoulder with a violent cough. “It is a gateway between worlds—specifically your world and mine. I came through… Get away from my arm!”
He snapped his good arm at John. Red light danced in his palm. Andy saw the ball of light hit John’s chest, knocking him backward over the log he brought to the fire. “You son of a…” was all he got out. The man in the robe turned his palm toward him. He froze with the rest of the phrase still in his mouth.
“You have no time to waste!” The man struggled to his feet and swayed in the firelight. Somehow he gave the impression he was staring at both Andy and John with the same glance, but it wasn’t possible from that angle. He wondered if he could shove the guy to the ground and beat the crap out of him. He was sure John would help, but would it be enough?
“If you do not wish your friend to die alone in a strange world, you will stand before me and hear what I have to say.” He took a deep, old man’s breath. It made a wet noise as it slid over his beard and bloody lips. “Well? What will it be?”
John was the first to move. He stood up very slowly and looked at Andy over the fire, their eyes locking for half a second. His step was deliberate as he moved next to Andy in front of their tent and looked at the wounded man.
The wizard’s voice was low, a mumble almost lost in the snapping of the wet wood on the fire. “Almost old enough, but with no discernible skills. What a mess I have made. No matter… The choice is theirs.”
Andy shook his head at the guy’s muttering. He could hear the words, but didn’t understand—it was gibberish—but he was talking to himself, wasn’t he? Is he crazy? That thought brought out a laugh. I’m standing here in the woods wondering if my apparition is crazy! The wizard spat blood again. It sizzled in the fire in the silence that fell as he stared at them. John shot Andy a look and was surprised to see Andy looking back at him. He nodded slightly and thought, are you ready? It seemed like a long time before Andy’s eyes hardened and he returned the nod.
The wizard coughed, still looking at both of them with the same glance. “Jedrule syncophi.” He shook his head. “Come with me.” He bent down and grabbed his staff. Blood ran down his forearm and laced through his fingers in the firelight. He pressed his other hand against the small of his back and straightened, then moved three steps into the woods toward the hill. “Come!” he snarled over his shoulder. “I told you there is no time to waste.”
Andy whispered, “Do you have any idea what the hell we got ourselves into this time?”
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