[Last updated 08 Sept 17]
It was almost midnight. The following evening, I’d asked Cattherina to come out and play, and reluctantly, she’d agreed. And now it was getting late. A ghostly fog clouded the neighborhood streets; the streetlights lining the roads glowed in soft, hazy circles. I’d hoped that hiding in the fog would make it seem like nothing could see us. Like the world was ours.
I wanted Cattherina to open up and tell me more. About her fears. About the mountain. I wanted to see her spirits rise, return the favor, as she’d done for me.
“Take the shovel,” I said, holding it out by its shaft. We were in the sandlot, standing so the hole in the ground separated us. “It’s your turn to dig.”
“No, it’s too late. We need to go in.”
“The mountain can’t see you. This is the perfect time.”
“You don’t understand. It can and it will.”
I asked, “Why are you so afraid?”
“I’m not telling,” she said. “I’m not supposed to.”
A gust of wind blew. I lowered the shovel. Then without saying anything, I went back to the apple tree and stashed the shovel back into the natural cave its roots made.
I walked back to the hideout and found Catt fingering her necklace; even in this dreary moonlight, I could still see it sparkle.
I dragged the metal panel back over the hole. Then I put my hands in my pockets, looked at her and said, “I’m going to find out, one way or another.”
She stopped and said, “You’d better not.”
“Even if I have to go digging myself.”
She looked away and asked, “What do you want?”
“Cover your eyes.” She did. “Now count to ten. Then come find me. It’ll be fun.”
She said, “It’s not a game.”
I made my move. The chain-link fence rattled as I jumped it.
“Come back, Mikey,” she whispered harshly. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”
I headed across the street to her house. A white picket fence surrounded the front yard. I pushed through the gate and made my way to the porch.
Somewhere, on the second floor, slept Cattherina’s stepfather. I hoped he was fast asleep; I intended to keep him that way.
I approached the door and turned the knob. Opening the door was like how I took sticky bandages off my hurt knees: slow and painful. I pried open the door until the crack was wide enough to fit through. I sighed. Not daring to open it any further, I sidled through the dark gap and slipped inside.
A small lamp with an ancient, yellowed shade lit the living room with a dingy light. Old family portraits and a broken cuckoo clock hung on the back wall. Crushed beer cans littered the space around a rust-colored recliner. The smell of dust and cigars stained the air. I tiptoed over the crusting brown carpet, dodging the beer cans like they were landmines. I hurried to the basement door through the kitchen and made my way down the pink carpeted staircase.
The layout of the basement hall was shaped like a lower case t. At each end of the cross stood a door to different room. At the bottom of the t, down the longest part of the hall, was the playroom we called, the den.
The den featured typical wood-paneled walls straight from the ’70s, had a two plastic, potted plants in the corners, and a few shelves here and there for books and board games; besides that, there was a wood-framed, antique television set, which stood on four legs atop the gray carpet on the floor. I passed up the den and decided to find somewhere else to hide.
The room on the left was a bathroom. Not fit for hiding. The door on the right was a closet, but I’d hidden in there before. Instead, I went for the door directly across the hall from the den. Cattherina had warned me that the wine cellar was off limits. Of course, at my age, being told not to was almost like saying, “I dare you.”
Where does this lead? I always wondered. It was time to find out.
Behind forbidden doors, must lie answers.
I jiggled the doorknob. Locked, as expected. I took a knee, cupped my hands under the knob, and squinted one eye through the lady-shaped keyhole to stake out the room. No use. Too dark. Disappointed, I stood and leaned against the door. I almost lost my balance as the door breathed open. A black line of darkness grew between the unlatched door and its frame. I slipped into the shadows, knowing I knew better, but too eager to care.
Once my eyes adjusted, I saw racks of wooden shelves shaped like Xs; wine bottles rested in almost every cross-space. There were three aisles of racks, each standing as tall as a grownup.
I dashed down the second aisle of wine racks, finding a small crevice between a concrete column and wooden shelf. I sat down, beneath a mounted fire extinguisher, and rested my back against the cold concrete and waited. I rubbed my hands together like a villain, knowing Cattherina would have to face her fears to search for me here.
I heard her approach.
“Psst, are you in there?” It hadn’t been long; she must have followed me. I must have left the front door open. “You’d better not be.”
The hallway door opened; a patch of light grew in an irregular shape across the concrete floor. I stayed hidden in the shadows.
“Fine. You win. I’ll tell you everything. Just please come out.”
She tiptoed in. Something twisted in my gut. I felt it was far enough.
She found me. I was done playing.
“Okay,” I said, standing defeated, “you got me—Ow!”
My head hit something. Hard. The fire extinguisher. The red canister fell off its hook and hit the concrete floor, echoing in a metallic, heart-seizing—
CLAAANG! The canister spun in circles. White whirling clouds whooshed violently in spirals, all spurting from the blur of red twisting around. I jumped back. It almost knocked me over. Icy clouds billowed from the cracked fire extinguisher and spread over the floor as if the heavy fog from outside had seeped right in through the walls. Then it started running out of steam and the canister warbled, but it knocked against a wine rack before completely dying out.
A bottle from the rack fell loose.
Shattered glass tinkled over the concrete, and dark purple wine pooled like spilled blood.
Wine seeped around my shoes. Purple footprints stamped here and there as I searched for Cattherina. As the white mists evaporated, I found her kneeling on the floor, frozen like an ice sculpture, chiseled in fear. Her fingers braided together in prayer, her head aimed toward the ceiling, and her tortured eyes stared up, unblinking—if the walls were see through, she’d be eyeing the mountain outside.
Trapped in thought, not knowing what to do, I ran my hand through my hair. I felt a lump. The sharp, sudden pain jolted me from my stupor. I shook my head and went to her.
I grabbed her hands and pulled her to her feet. Our arms interlocked and we faced each other, inches apart.
“This is all my fault,” I said. “Let’s go in the den, by the TV. We’ll pretend we didn’t hear it. We’ll pretend we don’t know.” I pulled on her arms. “Come on.”
Even though her feet moved her out of the darkened room, her eyes stayed fixated on the world above.
Somehow, we made it to the den. We sat in front of the old television, with our feet under us, our knees pressed into the carpet. Our distorted reflections in the TV’s dark glass made us look transparent. Catt’s hair hung over her face like a mourning veil. Her fingernails scratched at her jeans, making a gritty sound. She rocked in place, back and forth, back and forth.
Seeing her this way was beyond heartbreaking. If there was ever a time to find the island, it was now. But it was all I could do to keep from joining her and start my own motions. Wanting to sooth her, wanting to keep her calm, I spoke up and broke the silence.
“Here,” I said, offering her an Atari joystick. “Take this. We’ll act like we were playing—”
“It’s not a game,” she said.
She took the joystick anyway. At least that got her to stop.
“Just tell me how to turn it on.”
I tried one knob, but it felt loose, like the volume controls.
“I hope he didn’t hear. I hope he didn’t see—”
“Shh. Just help me.”
The other knob was heavy. I turned it hard, and it clicked. The screen warmed. Dust crackled. Then an image appeared. Black-and-white. Salt-and-pepper.
I fumbled with a third, silver dial. I bopped my fist atop of the TV like a hammer. Every channel hissed with static.
I shook my head. “Look, what’s so bad that he—?”
Floorboards. Above us. Creaking.
We both turned toward the sound. Someone, or something, shifted upstairs. We looked at each other. Our time was up.
“Oh, no,” Catt breathed, “no no no. I’m gonna get it now.”
“The Mountain.” Cattherina raised her hands to her face and parted her bangs, revealing teary eyes. “When he sees me. When I do bad things…he tells me stories. Scary stories.”
“Wait…the Mountain’s his name?” The man upstairs? “He’s the Mountain?”
Catt rubbed her eyes and nodded.
All this time it was her stepfather. The mountain outside was only bothering me, apparently. It had nothing to do with what she was going through.
My experiences with punishment usually involved having a leather belt snapped across my rear or sucking on an oversized bar of bath soap. Never were stories told as a punishment. In my stories, I was the hero—always the hero. The enemies vying for Cattherina’s hand always fell beneath my sword, spear, or deadly silver shovel. Not once did I fail my mission. Then I thought, and realized something that blew my mind.
What about her stories? I may be the hero in mine, but Cattherina, well, she’s always there and she’s always the victim. What must it be like to live in a story where the evil always takes you? Where the world is always against you? Where your only hope is for a courageous someone to show up and save you?
I confessed: “Grampa used to tell me stories all the time.”
Catt rubbed her nose and sniffed. “He did?”
“Yes, and in them, I’m always the hero. I’ll save you.” One of the shoulder straps of her pink tank top fell off her shoulder; lightly caressing her arm, I straightened it back, setting it right. “No matter what, so don’t worry. It’ll be scary for a little while, but I promise I’ll—”
Heavy foot stomps rolled down the basement stairs. We both looked toward the playroom door with fear in our eyes.
Catt’s gaze turned back to me. “You promise?”
“Promise.” And I meant it.
“Sometimes,” she said on her own, now staring back into the scrambled television screen. “Sometimes there are monsters. There are monsters that control me with strings and move me around like a play-thing and—”
“I’ll cut them,” I said bravely. The wine cellar door creaked. “I’ll use a sword—no—my silver shovel to slice the strings right off.”
A muffled growl rumbled through the walls like the cry of an angry dog.
“Sometimes, in the stories, the monsters throw me from a cliff and—”
“I’ll grow wings and catch you. Then we’ll fly high into the sky where you’ll be safe and away.”
“Will it have a happy ending?”
The wine cellar door slammed. We jumped in our seats.
“You b-bet! The b-best ending y-you’ll ever see—”
The playroom door swung open. The air in the room shifted violently. Air left my lungs, physically pulled out. My heart raced, pumping behind my ears. We each held a joystick and turned our heads at the Mountain invading our play space.
Standing in the threshold, a snarling man, red-faced, scowled in rage. Oily ribbons of unwashed hair dangled over his face. A retina-like glare beamed from behind his hair. His arms were down and out wide by his side, as if he were about to duel an old western cowboy. His stubby fingers clenched-up in hairy fists. He wore a wife-beater and a pair of stained boxer shorts patterned in camouflage leaves. His chest heaved as he breathed.
The sound of TV static was deafening.
“I t-thought you w-were asleep?”
“Don’t give me that,” said the Mountain through his teeth.
“Oh, w-well, we were j-just—”
“Shut it,” he yelled, pointing his finger. Then he lowered his arm and stared us down. “Who the hell went in that room without goddamn permission?” He didn’t give us time to answer. “Huh?”
My footprints were stamped in the purple wine. The blood, in a sense, was on my hands—on my shoes. I’m the one who went digging for clues. Had I known….
I said, “It’s my fault.” I spoke too softly, though. With shaking knees, I stood. Barely. I strafed to the left toward the door. The Mountain moved to the right, toward Catt. “It was me. I’m the one who—”
“Shut up kid.” He raised a hand at me. “No one’s talking to you.” He turned his attention back to Catt. “I know it was my little Kate.”
I’d called her that once and she’d kicked me in the shin. Now I knew why. She hated it. I blushed with anger, but I had no words. If there were any in there, I swallowed them down. I wasn’t used to being yelled at.
“It’s story time.” He grabbed her necklace and a fistful of her hair. “You’d best get outta here,” he said to me. “Forget about the girl. Away with you, boy!”
“No! Let her go!”
“I said SHUT IT, BOY!’
My hands were shaking. My eyes filled with tears. My teeth would have been chattering if my mouth wasn’t hanging so far open. With hair in her eyes, her hands clenching about her neck, Cattherina struggled and cried.
“Do what he says. Run, Mikey! Hide. Go to the island!”
“What about you? I c-can’t—”
“Find the island,” she said, tears streaking her reddened face. The Mountain pulled her by her necklace, choking her, almost dragging her. Catt lost her balance. “Forget about me!”
“No, stop,” I cried. “Not without you!”
“I’ll find it too.”
“Do it coward,” growled the Mountain. “Away with you.”
“I won’t forget.” I blinked and a tear fell. Somehow, I managed to turn away.
Somehow, I made it out of that room.
Up the pink staircase, I climbed. Across the kitchen’s linoleum, I slid. Over the crispy carpet of the living room, I ran. And out the front door, I flew.
A thunderclap welcomed me outside. Then a violent flash of light. The black sky rumbled while bolts of light scribbled into the night. Each flash turned the world on and off. With one step, I saw the sidewalk and some grass; I knew the way. But with the next step, the lights went out and I was lost in the dark. Only once the sky opened up and dumped buckets did I see the blacktop road, front lawn, picket fence, and streetlamps, all shimmering with wetness.
I was a ghost running through the rain. A stripped layer of my former-self was left behind, left kneeling before the TV, left staring at the static, joystick in hand. The neighborhood’s great mountain stared down through the sheets of rain. Its stare went right through me. I turned my head away. I ran across the street and jumped back over the chain-link fence to the sandlot. In one fell swoop, I lifted the panel covering to the hideout and lunged down into the darkness, alone.
The soil was wet and smelled of worms. The panel roofed me in. It was dark. I knelt in the center of the well, the surrounding walls absorbed my cries, and the rain ticking off the paneling drowned out everything else. A few exposed roots touched me. I ignored them.
“It’s impossible,” I said with staggered breath. “The Mountain…can’t be defeated. The island’s…all that’s left. I have to make it. I just have to!”
I pressed my shaking hands deep into the dark soil of the buried well. “The island, the island.” Desperately, I dug with my hands, scooping out clots of dirt and slops of mud. “It has to be here, it has to be here.” On my knees, I rocked, clawing and scraping, dirt packing under my nails. “Dig deep, dig deep.” I moved hair from my eyes, smearing mud across my forehead. “Somewhere in here, dig, keep digging.” I reached back into the mud, needing it.
Then I found something. I touched it.
I got a grip and pulled it from the mud.
The artifact was clean, unblemished by the soil, and it had a magical glow as if producing its own light source. The item was silver, oval-shaped, with a slight heft to it. On its front, embossed in black, was the silhouette of a bird. The bird’s head bowed down the center of the jewel. Its beak—represented by a triangle of exposed silver—rested at the bird’s breast. The bird’s wings were spread wide in full flight. Beams of etched silver shot out from behind its wings, shimmering impossibly in this dark hole.
“It’s you.” The bird that I’d heard calling? “You’re from the island, huh?” I sniffed and wiped my runny nose, smudging dirt there. “Yeah, now that I have this I can make it. This is what was missing.”
I gripped the gem hard, shut my eyes tight, pursed my lips, and concentrated.
Sitting still, my breathing steadied. My heart pumped rhythmically. Tears dried on my cheeks. I used the sound of rain, and imagined it as an ocean. The wind, the waves. The mud, the sand. I shifted in my seat, anticipating a bumpy ride.
“Come on.” I swallowed. A ticking pulse massaged my throat. “Do it already,” I said, daring the dark. “Take me away.”
Sometimes at school, I would stare at the tip of my Number 2 pencil, putting it right before my eyes. If I looked at it right, the background blurred behind it as the tip became sharp and clear. That’s what it felt like when my brain flexed. I suddenly saw a whole other dimension at the tip of the pencil lead.
My eyes burst open. I choked on a breathless gasp.
The surface above had flooded. Sheets of bright blue water, like from a mystical lagoon, pushed through the space between the ground and the metal paneling. I was amazed by the water’s impossible blueness.
The turquoise waves passed my knees and reached my waist. The cold tickled like ice. Not wanting to drown, instinct had me reaching for the world above. But my arms were stuck, and I couldn’t move my legs. The black, tangled, exposed roots within the hideout had come to life and tied me down. More of them slithered like snakes—coiling around me.
My arms and legs lost all circulation. I craned my head away from the water and screamed. “Cattherina!” The water reached my neck, then came over me. “Catt—gluugluughhh!”
The roots took me under. I lost my grip on the silver gem; I reached for it, but the roots pulled me back. They wrapped up my mouth, covered my face, and tangled up the length of my torso and legs. The water’s currents pulled one way while the roots pulled another. Water entered my nostrils, pressed through my sinuses, and drizzled like cold syrup over the ridges of my brain. I screamed and wrenched in a bubbly panic.
Then I went numb and almost blacked out. The painful part was over. I stopped squirming and let them take me.
Deeper and deeper the roots pulled me down—much deeper than the confines of the secret hideout should have ever allowed. The world had betrayed me, and I hoped now that I headed to the shores of paradise…or at least, to a place where the world could no longer hurt me.