Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Think Twice (A Short Story)

“And remember to listen to your grandmother,” The Boy's mother said as she headed off to work. It was what she always said. But what did his grandmother know of space stations and lost treasure? What did she know of superheros and spies?

The Boy obeyed his grandmother even though most of her orders only consisted of “Wash the dishes” or “Sweep the porch”. When The Boy came home from school he'd find her in the same spot she had been in when he left. She would be sitting in her chair at the kitchen table, a cup of strong black tea next to her, comfortable sandals resting half way off of her old, wrinkled feet, her glasses halfway down her nose, peering into a thick book full of words and totally lacking in pictures.

The only order of hers The Boy always looked forward to hearing was, “Go outside and play for awhile. Get the stink off of you,” which always came out less mean than it maybe sounds.

The Boy loved adventure. He often got his other friends in trouble. Not intentionally. He just tended to want to go further than others did. The Boy was never malicious or mean, just curious. Where does that lead? Who is that? Why is that there? All questions The Boy often felt driven to get personal answers to.

When things went wrong, as they often do with young boys, it was his grandmother who gave him guidance. Guidance was a nice way of saying she'd give The Boy a stern lecture. But to The Boy's never ending irritation, it was never just a scolding she gave him, it was always some cryptic piece of advice that just made him more confused than anything.

As a perfect example of this, The Boy walked in from school one day with a look on his face that his grandmother knew well. “What did you do?” she said, recognizing the guilt etched into The Boy's eyes.

“I said something mean to a kid at school.” The Boy neglected to tell his grandmother that it was a girl he'd said the mean thing to. Instead, he stared at the scuff marks on the toes of his sneakers.

The Boy's grandmother said, “Always think twice before you insult someone. But don't think at all before giving a compliment.” She then gave him a stern look that perfectly conveyed that The Boy should heed what she'd said. Then she returned to her thick book with cream colored pages and clear plastic dust jacket. “Go outside and play now. Get the stink off of you.”

He did, happily. The Boy didn't understand his grandmother's advice. He'd meant to say something nice to the girl at school. He wasn't sure why he'd been attempting to speak to her at all. But when The Boy had sputtered and tripped over his tongue in front of the girl, she had looked at him strangely and said, “You smell funny. Did you bathe today?” That's when he'd said something mean.

That day, after having his grandmother tell him to go play, The Boy found himself wandering farther than usual. He followed train tracks, then cut through a park, past a different school attended by different children. He hopped a fence and wandered through an old abandoned factory. Part of him wanted to see if he could sneak in and explore the aging gray building. Instead, The Boy climbed the fence in the back and found himself at a concrete canal. The sides were sloped and he could easily walk down to the water at the bottom, which didn't even crest his sneakers.

Not far up ahead, The Boy saw that the canal became a tunnel. The Boy was never able to resist a tunnel. He headed in and used the light that crept in from the outside to guide his way. Even before it became completely dark, he saw new light ahead, letting him know that the tunnel ran in a straight, unexciting line. He had just resigned himself to walking through the tunnel and then maybe heading home when something caught his eye. To his right, on the side of the tunnel was an old wooden door. Even as young as The Boy was, he knew that somehow, the door didn't really fit in with the rest of the tunnel. It looked older somehow. There was no knob or latch, just a heavy, black, iron rung in the center. He pulled on it and the thick hinges along the side of the door creaked and scraped, but gave way.

Past the door, it was dark and dank. There was a bittersweet smell floating from inside that made The Boy's stomach lurch. He knew beyond a doubt that he should close the door and leave. “I'll come back later with my friends,” he said aloud. But he also knew that too would be a bad idea. He should not bring his friends to this place.

But they would ask The Boy what he had found inside when he told them of the door. He would have to tell them that he had not had the courage to go in. It was bad enough that The Girl thought he smelled funny. If The Girl found out that he was chicken as well, that would be too much. The Boy took a few deep breaths and stepped into the darkness beyond the door.

Although no outside light found its way past the old wooden door, The Boy was surprised to see that within just a few minutes, he was able to see again. The tunnel walls were soft, muddy and round, like they'd been dug out by a giant slug. The Boy imagined a giant tunneling worm leaving enormous slime trails and gobbling up... The Boy stopped there because he realized that he had nearly imagined himself into a panic. His heart was racing.

He hadn't seen as much as an earth worm in the tunnel. Still, The Boy didn't feel like he was alone. It felt like the times he'd been half asleep in the morning and knew his mother was in the bedroom. She would be waking him to go to school. He knew she was there even though she hadn't made a sound. Something was in the tunnel with The Boy and it wasn't making a sound.

Still, he ventured on. He couldn't really discern where the light was coming from but he tried to head toward it. The tunnel seemed to randomly veer left and right, sometimes angling slightly upward or downward. It was just tall enough for him not to hit his head, but still he crouched, afraid of something on the ceiling dropping into his hair.

The bittersweet smell had gotten stronger. It reminded The Boy of a pile of leaves he'd once played in after it had rained the week before. All of the leaves at the bottom of the pile were molding and black. The Boy stepped on a something odd in the tunnel and looked down. He couldn't quite make out what it was, so he picked it up. A bone, long thin and white. He couldn't tell what it had come from but The Boy's imagination insisted that it was from a human being. He dropped it and shrieked. He hated that he'd shrieked. Somehow, The Girl would know he'd shrieked. Still, he turned and ran. And ran.

The tunnel was no longer the same. There had been no intersections, no forks, and yet The Boy was sure that he was now somehow lost in the tunnel. The vague light seemed to come from both directions and neither direction. “I'm not going to cry,” The Boy said out loud, trying to reassure himself. He set his lips firmly and breathed rapidly through his nose. “I'm not going to cry,” he said again, almost convinced.

“Good,” came a voice, “I hate it when they cry.” It was a voice like tires crunching over glass and it rolled through the tunnel in a way that made it impossible for the boy to tell if its owner was a mile away or an arms length.

The Boy screamed and began to run again, but tripped almost immediately. He fell face first into the muddy tunnel floor. He tried to scramble back to his feet, not even caring which direction he ran in, but there was suddenly a very strong hand around his ankle and it began to drag the boy away. It was all The Boy could do to roll onto his back and try to catch his breath.

He tried to see what had him, but whatever it was was mostly just a bulky shadow that seemed to take up the entire tunnel, blocking out all of the light. They didn't go far. The Boy could see that he was being pulled into a cavernous natural space, where massive tree roots dangled from the ceiling.

In the center of the room was a fire, a big one, bigger than any he had made at camp. Around the room were piles of junk. There were dozens of piles. One was a pile of grocery carts. Another was a pile of TVs. Next to them was a pile of clothes. Each was at least five feet high, some much higher.

And in the light of the fire, The Boy could see who, or what had dragged him there. Even out of the tunnel it hunched, one arm hanging much lower than the other. Standing straight up, The Boy was sure The Thing must be nine feet tall. Its skin was a mix of gray and green that reminded the boy of being ill with the flu. It had muscles, but they were masked underneath horrendous boils and pustules everywhere on its body. Some were oozing. Its hands were gnarled and bent, as though the fingers had broken and not healed properly. The nails on the hands were long and jagged, broken and black. Its hair was the color of mud and where it wasn't patchy or missing, it was long and broken and bent. But The Thing's face was the worst.

The Boy had a hard time looking directly at it. It hurt to look at that face because it didn't look like it should work. It reminded the boy of the time he'd accidentally gotten one of his action figures too close to the furnace. All of the features of the things face were in the wrong positions. Its eyes too low and uneven, its nose bent and off to the side, its mouth and jaw were huge and warped. The Boy wanted to close his eyes and cry, but somehow the idea of not being able to see where The Thing was terrified him even more.

The Thing unceremoniously dropped The Boy in front of the roaring fire. It turned to him and that grating, broken glass voice spewed out at The Boy. “Invader! Burglar! Criminal! You've come to steal my things like the others!”

“Others?” The Boy barely managed. The Thing pointed to a pile that The Boy hadn't noticed earlier. It was a pile of bones as tall as he was. He swallowed and looked back toward The Thing. “I wasn't trying to steal. I was just curious to see what was behind-”

“Then you should have knocked!” The Thing bellowed at him and The Boy nearly lost control of his bladder.

The Thing balled its fists up in anger and stormed in a circle around the fire. “You're just like the others!” It screamed. “No reason not to tear you limb from limb and roast you!” The Thing came full circle back to The Boy who was petrified with fear. It leaned in close to The Boy, standing over him and hunching down so that his face was right over The Boy's. A blob of drool stretched from The Thing's lips and landed on The Boy's chin.

“You have one chance, little thief. One!” The Thing growled at The Boy. The Thing stood and paced for a moment and then looked back at The Boy, almost hesitantly, and said, “What do you think of me?” It's voice had lowered to almost a whisper. The Thing's viciousness returned quickly and it said, “But if you even start to lie, I'll know and in five minutes you'll be roasting in that fire and you'll be in my belly within the hour! Do you hear me! I'll know!” He charged The Boy again, getting right down to his face. “I'll know!” he hissed again.

It was then that The Boy's grandmother's voice came back to him. He was surprised to hear her then. That of all the people or things that might have come to him in that moment, it was his grandmother. Her words drifted through his brain in her firm, authoritative tone: “Always think twice before you insult someone. But don't think at all before giving a compliment.”

“Your eyes are a brilliant blue! Quite amazing actually,” The Boy said to The Thing. Both of them were stunned by the outburst. The Boy because he hadn't really thought about what he'd said and The Thing because he was sure The Boy had been about to lie, like all of the others had. But to The Thing's surprise, he could detect no lie in The Boy.

The Thing stood back. His face went slack. The only sound in the room was the crackle of the fire. The Thing turned and moved to a pile of furniture. There it found a broken vanity, only shards of its mirror remaining. The Thing pulled one of the pieces free and moved closer to the fire. He held the piece up to his face, angling to get the best light.

The Thing let out a sigh and said, “My eyes are a rather pretty shade of blue, aren't they?”

The Boy was too petrified to answer. He said nothing, still resolving not to wet his pants.

The Thing apparently didn't need an answer. It said, “You didn't lie. I believe that you came in here without criminal intentions. You may leave.” The Thing's voice was neither angry nor happy. It sounded perhaps a bit melancholy.

The Boy looked back toward the tunnel from which he'd been pulled, eager to get away from The Thing, but not looking forward to being lost in the tunnel again. But when he looked down into the hole, The Boy could see the wooden door, not twenty feet away, still ajar. The Thing ignored him, still gazing at his blue eyes in the shard of the broken vanity.

Finding his strength again, The Boy got up and ran toward the door faster than he'd ever run in his life. He flew out into the concrete tunnel, continued sprinting back to the canal, up the embankment, over the fence, past the factory, through the school, all the way back to his grandmother's house.

When he reached the front door, he looked in the window to see if she was there. As always his grandmother was sitting in her chair reading. Her tea was steaming. The Boy decided to wait a few minutes and catch his breath. He sat on the porch and wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirt, trying to sort everything that had happened.

After composing himself, he took a final deep breath and stepped back in the house, trying to act as casual as possible. Even though she could not see The Boy, she called to him from the kitchen. “Come in here. What have you been up to?” Her tone was one that he knew meant that she was on to something.

When The Boy stepped in the kitchen, his grandmother gasped. “You're filthy! You will not be walking around my house covered in mud like that. Go shower and change your clothes.” The Boy sighed and listened to his grandmother.

Later, after cleaning up and putting on fresh clothes, he found that the incident with The Thing had already begun to take on a dream like quality. Had it really happened? Yes, he was sure it had, but it seemed distant now somehow.

He stepped into the kitchen to find his grandmother steeping a pot of tea. The book she was currently reading was sitting at the kitchen table, a book mark in its place. The Boy looked at the cover. The titles always seemed bland to him and the covers rarely had anything but words on them. She'd been to the library that day, he could tell. There was a stack of new books on the chair next to hers and he looked down the spines briefly.

“Who are all these people? What are all of these books about? They seem boring.” He picked up one heavy book and tried to read the authors name but found that he couldn't guess the pronunciation.

The Boy's grandmother sat back down in her chair and set her cup of tea down. She opened up the book she was currently reading, adjusted her glasses and said, “Open one up and find out.”

The Boy didn't like that answer, but he turned back to the stack. He looked down at the names again. They were all so strange to him. Asimov. Stevenson. Tolkien. Fleming. King. Le Guin. Wells. Bradbury. Verne. Doyle. The Boy picked one at random, sat down across from his grandmother and began to read.

The End

For my grandmother.

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