Trevor pulled aside the curtains and saw the setting sun. “Oh, crap!”
“What?” Logan leaned forward on the couch. The credits of Return of the King were still rolling on the TV.
“Look how dark it’s getting!”
“Oh,” Logan laughed. “Better hurry.”
“Later!” Trevor grabbed his stuff and was out the door.
He pulled on his coat as he hurried down Logan’s driveway, shoving his orc and goblin toys deep into its pockets. He zipped it up in front, joining together the two halves of Aragorn’s face. Normally he would have headed to the end of Evergreen and turned onto Beachwood. Beachwood bowed out in a wide U shape and took a meandering path through the sea of red-tiled roofs and past the Wooded Oaks Park and then connected with Pine, onto which his family had moved. In the week that he had lived in Wooded Oaks, he had been over to Logan’s four times, and he had always taken the same route there and back again. But as he hurried down Evergreen, he knew there was no time to take the scenic route. When his mom said to be home by dark, she meant it. Several nights of a butt too red to sleep on had been visited upon him when he was little, and the habit of obeying his mom in the matter was deeply ingrained in him.
So he headed for the alley that Logan had pointed out to him a few days before when they had been on their way to the park to play basketball.
“It goes right through to Cherry,” Logan had said, “and then you can just turn left and hook a U-turn over onto Pine.”
Trevor reached the end of Evergreen, crossed Beachwood, and set foot into the alley. Almost immediately, he skidded to a stop in the gravel and glanced around. Something was wrong. He looked back towards Beachwood… and he was sure that he hadn’t come that far into the alley yet. Taking a few steps, he listened to the gravel crunch beneath his shoes. He glanced back towards Beachwood, looked forward again, and suddenly it was dark. He looked up to the sky and saw the moon hanging at the equivalent of noon, as though it had been there for hours.
“…who goes there?...”
He spun wildly about at the entrance of the alley. Except that he wasn’t at the entrance any longer. He could see it clearly, but as he looked he could tell that it was at least a half mile away.
“...who has come?...”
“Hello?” he called, except his voice sounded smaller than that of a mouse. He swallowed and tried again. “Hello?” Little better the second time.
“…who’s there… hee hee hee…”
There was a sing-song quality to the voice.
“Logan?” he looked all about him, turning constantly. There were a few bags of trash beside a wooden gate, there was a metal gate a ways further. Red-tiled roofs rose above brick walls, the moon showing dull shades of color.
“Logan?” he tried again. “This isn’t cool, dude!” He looked back towards Logan’s house.
A form stepped into the entrance to the alley. Tall and hooded, head bowed. The head rose.
“Will you be my friend?”
Trevor uttered a gasp and twisted around to run. His sneakers slid out from under him and his chin hit the gravel. He scrambled to his feet and tasted blood.
“Come back!” the voice screamed. It had a spastic, crazed quality to it. “Let me play with you!”
He looked over his shoulder as he ran. He could no longer see the hooded form, but he heard its footsteps as it chased after him. Suddenly he realized that he was hearing his own steps, and he stopped, breathing heavily and trying hard to listen. He ran his eyes along the tops of the brick walls to either side, he scanned the red-tiled roofs, seeing every chimney as a tall hooded form, every TV antenna as a specter of Death. His eyes panned down and searched a wooden gate.
Red eyes peered through the slats.
Uttering an inarticulate cry of fear, he fell over backwards, swallowed a tad of his own blood, and tore off down the alley on all fours. The creature behind the gate let out a series of barks and grows. The sounds were deeper than that of any earthly canine; more sinister, more cunning. In those barks and growls Trevor heard a wish for blood, and a want of bone.
“My pets want to play!” the voice called out in the night, high-pitched and frantic. “But they play rough! Rending, tearing, ripping, gouging! Play with me, and I’ll play gentle!”
Trevor’s hands bled from the gravel. He somehow got to his feet, and as he ran he looked over his shoulder. He could no longer see the entrance to the alley. Beachwood and Evergreen were gone. In their place was a great void. Brick walls ran back as far as he could see, guiding the river of gravel into the blackness. The sea of red-tiled roofs rose on either side, and swimming in those seas were the beasts of hell, the pets of the voice of the Devil. Minions ready to be unleashed. He ran, looking ahead and seeing the same environment that stretched out behind him.
Except now the hooded form was in front of him.
For the third time he went to the ground, his skidding halt going awry. From his hands and knees he looked up, and it wasn’t a formless image of Death approaching. Rather, it was the King of Gondor himself, Aragorn. Strider. The Ranger of the North.
“What right do you think you have to wear my likeness?” Aragorn asked him.
At first Trevor was too shocked to speak. Then he looked down at his coat and back up at his idol.
“I didn’t – I mean – I –” He swallowed. “This is a dream, right? I’m back at Logan’s, and I fell asleep on the couch. I mean, I love you, man! What’s going on?”
“With the blade that was broken, I shall break you,” Aragorn said, and he unsheathed the Sword of Elendil. It was taller than Trevor. “With this flame o’ da west, I shall burn you, little buddy.”
Trevor spun in terror, still on all fours, and his heart stopped when he saw a solid brick wall behind him. Scrambling back to face Aragorn, he found the ranger gone, replaced by another brick wall. He leapt to his feet and spun in circles until he was dizzy. He was boxed in by four walls, an endless sea of red-tiled roofs flowing beyond. On each wall was a dumpster. Iron painted green, the paint flaking and giving way to rust, topped with beat-up black plastic lids. His head spinning, he sagged against one of the dumpsters and took a breath. He put his leg up on the lid and hoisted himself up.
“Stop!” a voice hissed.
Trevor flinched so violently that he lost his balance and rolled off the slanted dumpster lid, landing in the harsh gravel. His lip bled anew, his hands joined in, and his pants tore at the left knee. For a moment he was so dazed that he forgot the reason he had fallen. Then he leapt to his feet and looked wildly about. One of the dumpster lids was open slightly, and from beneath the warped plastic glowed a pair of eyes. They were blue, and then the voice spoke again.
“Don’t touch the walls, they’re part of him.”
“Wha…” Trevor was gasping for breath. He looked to the walls and then back to the dumpster. “They’re… part of him? Who?”
“Come on,” and the dumpster lid opened a tad more. “The only way out is through here.”
“Wait, who are you?” Trevor asked.
“Come on, come on, you have to hurry! When you don’t try to climb the walls, he comes looking for you!”
“Come on, come on!” The dumpster lid opened wider.
“No… No!” Trevor took a breath. “How do I know you’re not him?”
“…where are you?...”
“Come on, come on!”
Trevor looked along the top of the walls, and then up at the moon. It was brighter than ever, but maybe it only seemed that way because of the silhouette cast against it. The floating specter of Death was at the same time walking on the moon and floating just out of Trevor’s reach. Trevor let out a gulp and ran towards the open dumpster. Taking a breath, he dove in.
He fell and fell. After a while he realized that he was screaming. And then all of a sudden he was standing on solid rock, as if he’d never been falling at all. Knobby rectangle rocks were stacked together making up the walls of a tunnel. It looked like the ancient catacombs that Trevor had seen in one of the Indiana Jones movies. There was a candle mounted on the wall above his head, and in its light he saw standing beside him a small boy with blue eyes and blonde hair. The boy was wearing a Chicago Bears jacket.
“Come on!” the boy motioned.
“Whoa, stop!” Trevor grabbed the boy by the jacket, the Bears logo crumpling between his fingers. “What the crap is going on here? Where are we?”
“We’re in the catacombs. Come on, come on!” and the boy struggled against Trevor’s hold on him. “He can come down here too, we have to hurry!” The boy tore away and Trevor was forced to give chase.
“Wait, who are you?”
As the pair ran, Trevor looked to either side. Wrought-iron cell bars encased skeletons and whole herds of rats. There were grating in the floor, and along the wall ran a thin stream of greenish red liquid. As Trevor looked at it he realized that the tunnel was tilted gently down, so that he could only tell by observing the putrid stream’s flow.
“Hey – Chicago!” he called to the boy. “Where does this thing go?”
“To the exit. Come on!”
“The exit of what? Where are we?”
But then Trevor slowly came to a halt. The left side of the tunnel continued on, filthy dungeon cells set behind the dirty trickle of bile, but the right wall gave way to something completely different. There was a wrought-iron railing at the edge of the walkway, and looking up and down Trevor could see naught but blackness. Hovering in the void though was a terror and a wonder, a thing that Trevor would have stared at for hours with horrified fascination had Chicago not tugged him away.
It was a giant sphere, a globe, hollow in the middle and filled with water, its wall made of what looked like Jell-O. The enormous ball jiggled gently in mid-air. On the inside were crowds, swarms, whole armies of misty silhouettes of children, adults, dogs, cats, pigeons, insects, and countless other things, all endlessly swimming about inside the sphere, bouncing off the Jell-O walls, trapped and wailing in terror and dismay.
“Come on!” Chicago tugged at his hand.
“What is this?” Trevor whispered in horror.
“That’s where you go if you touch the walls, and you never get out! Come on, hurry!”
Trevor let himself be guided away, his eyes still straying to the prison sphere. The path now wound around the exterior of the giant ball, so that he got a different view of the poor souls trapped within. When the boys were almost through the sphere room, the souls suddenly all rushed against the Jell-O walls. Trevor flinched, wondering dumbly at the cause of their anger, and then he saw that the hooded form of Death had come among them. The souls quivered and cowered and shrank away from the faceless specter, and then outright fled as it floated along the walls. Suddenly its hooded visage locked onto them, and Chicago squeaked in terror.
“Oh no, oh no!”
The specter vanished from within the sphere.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” Chicago gasped.
Once again the boys were racing down the catacombs, dungeon cells on either side, but now there were turn-offs after every third cell. Chicago made what seemed to Trevor to be random, sporadic turns through an impossible labyrinth.
“Do you know where you’re going?” he called to the boy, nearly out of breath.
“Yes, yes, just hurry!”
After four more turns, Chicago skidded to a stop, and Trevor crashed into him from behind. Both boys fell to the stone floor. Trevor grasped his knees and groaned, both of them bleeding now. Chicago never stopped moving. He scrambled forward on all fours and then turned to the wall. Pressing his little fingers against the bricks, he felt about in the grout lines. A single brick suddenly gave way, and on the opposite wall a small section of the brick slid in and to the side.
Trevor glanced at the opening and then to Chicago. He blinked back tears of fright. “What is this place?”
“Come on!” Chicago urged, and he scrambled into the opening.
Trevor moaned in fear and followed after. Just as he joined Chicago in the pitch-black cubby, the wall started closing again.
“It’s okay,” Chicago said, seeing Trevor’s fearful expression as the wall shut them in. “There’s another switch in here. We can get out when it’s safe.”
The wall slid back into place with a quiet thud and the blackness was complete.
Trevor shuddered and tried to think. “What’s your real name?” he asked.
“I mean, what’s your name?”
“You don’t know?”
“How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you build this place? This hiding place?”
“No, Billy showed it to me.”
“Who is Billy?”
“He was here when I got here. He brought me here when he found me, just like I brought you. I don’t know how he knew about it.”
“You can remember his name but not your own?”
“Billy wasn’t really his name. He just wore a Billabong shirt.”
The air suddenly changed. The temperature remained the same, but there was a chill nonetheless. Chicago gave a small gasp of fright, and Trevor looked about wildly in the darkness. A soft wind blew through the tunnel. They could hear pebbles being rolled along the catacomb floors. And then faintly they heard the voice of Death, singing gayly as it floated past the dungeon cells towards them.
“Plaything, plaything… where are you, my plaything… let me touch you, my little bitty plaything…”
The voice grew in volume and then peaked as it passed the boys’ hiding place. Trevor closed his eyes against the spectral chill, and then the voice began to fade. Slowly warmth began to return to the little cubby, and by the time the voice faded completely, Trevor could almost breathe easy again.
“Come on,” Chicago whispered. There was the scraping of one brick on another, and then the door slid open once again. Candlelight blinded them briefly, and then they stood up in the tunnel and blinked.
“This way,” Chicago started off, making the first right he came to and then resuming his seemingly random series of left and rights.
“But we don’t know which way he went,” Trevor whispered in fear.
“Have to risk it. Come on.”
They continued on for what seemed hours. Finally Chicago made a turn and abruptly started up a narrow, spiraling staircase that had been near impossible to see, encased in shadows. Trevor paused long enough to gulp in fear, and then he started up. He kept count of the full-circles they made ascending, until they reached a dozen or so. Then he lost count and began to fell dizzy, so he gave it up. Chicago moved effortlessly up the stone steps and Trevor panted behind him. Suddenly Chicago stopped and Trevor bumped into him. They were at the top, and it was a black plastic ceiling that kept them from climbing higher. Chicago put a finger to his lips and carefully pushed up on the ceiling.
Cool night air rushed in, and the two boys’ faces peered out into the alley. Trevor glanced left and right down the silent corridor. Left first, where he saw an endless repetition of dumpsters against walls, iron and wooden gates leading to backyards filled with red-tiled roofs. And then right, and what he saw made him blink and look twice. The alley continued for only a short while before the walls, dumpsters, gravel, all of it, came to an abrupt halt. He was four houses down from the entrance to the alley. Past the fourth backyard to his right, the sun was shining. There were two girls playing hopscotch on the sidewalk across the street. A fat man in a white tank-top had the hood of his car open. Life was happening.
“This is where Billy died,” Chicago whispered.
“Billy tried to escape, but the dogs saw him.”
Billy’s eyes went to the gates along the walls. There were three opposing pairs between their dumpster and the sunlight.
“The dogs are part of him,” Chicago continued. “They see you, and he sees you.”
“But they’re behind fences. What if I just–”
“Don’t run!” Chicago hissed. “Billy tried that. He just ran, and… the dogs started barking, and before he was to the end, he got taken.”
“Taken by that thing? What is it, anyway?”
Chicago was peering down the dark alley towards the sunlight. He shrugged.
“Have you ever tried to run for it?”
“No,” Chicago shook his head immediately. “You don’t try more than once. Billy tried a while after I got here. I watched him from here. He said that he’d seen other people try. They’d never even reached the third gate. He didn’t reach the second.”
“So, what are you saying? I have to sneak past the gates? How do I know if the dogs are looking or not?”
“They’re only looking if you can see their eyes through the slats, and they can only see you if you’re pretty much right if front of them. Stick to one wall or the other.”
Trevor looked down the alley and considered himself making the trek. “But then I can’t see the gates on that side.”
“I’ll watch them, and I’ll wave you on. Now, go. He’s probably checking the exits already. Take off your shoes, they make noise.”
Trevor removed his shoes and then Chicago held up the dumpster lid as he hoisted himself over the side. His socked-feet lightly touched down on the gravel and Chicago lowered the lid to a fine slit. He crossed the alley at a tiptoe, and then put his back to the wall and sidled up to the first pair of gates. Across the alley, from over the brick wall, he could hear a dog of monstrous size pacing, its huge paws padding back and forth on the grass. Suddenly a pair of red orbs appeared glowing through the slats of the gate. Trevor stiffened and held his breath, and then the eyes were gone. He looked to the dumpster, and Chicago was waving him on.
He took his first tentative steps and noticed that the alley grew considerably darker the closer it led to the sunlight. His socked-feet were almost silent on the gravel, and he struggled against the urge to dash towards the daylight. Passing through the first pair of gates, he put his back to the wall against and took a long, deep breath through his mouth. Back the way he had come, the dogs continued to pace within their confines, and from ahead of him came the impatient growls of their fellows. Surrounded by a subtle din of aggression, he trembled.
The second gate across from him rattled somewhat on its hinges as something huge rubbed against it on the other side. Trevor held his breath until he realized it, and then he quietly let it out his mouth. Sweat started down his face, moving down his forehead and cheeks. Suddenly a pair of red eyes appeared at the gate across from him, panning back and forth restlessly. They hovered for some time and a growl accompanied them. Finally they vanished, and Trevor looked to the dumpster. Chicago motioned for him to wait. The little boy was sweating to match Trevor, watching the scene from the iron trash box. Then he waved frantically, and Trevor stepped past the gates.
Somehow, though daylight was only twenty feet beyond the last pair of gates, the night had grown even darker. Trevor glanced back and could barely see Chicago hiding in the dumpster. The growls of the fell dogs were all about him, the agitated guards pacing non-stop, their breathing huffing and their eyes threatening to appear at the gates at any moment. Trevor faced forward once again and stepped towards the third pair of gates.
Then his foot came down on a shard of glass amongst the gravel of the alley and he gasped in pain. The collective growls surrounding him paused as he wretched his foot up into the air and hopped on his good one. The gravel crunched and slid under his hops, and the dogs began barking; a deafening racket to wake the dead. He put his hands to his ears, letting his foot fall back to the ground and yelping in pain as the glass was pushed in further.
“Run!” Chicago screamed from behind him, and then he heard the thump of the dumpster lid falling closed.
Even as he began to move, the air turned colder. The glass wedged itself further up into his heel as he sprinted for the exit, and then suddenly Aragorn stood in front of him, swinging the his legendary blade, and the flat of it hit Trevor across the face.
Stumbling sideways into the wall, Trevor bawled in terror. He turned to run but the King of Gondor was already on him, reaching out for him, and when he touched Trevor, the boy screamed. Trevor’s muscles all tightened and clenched, cramping painfully all over his body. His veins seemed to flow with ice, his chest felt like it was fire, and the acute pain in his heel was replicated all over his skin. Closing his eyes against the torment, he screamed as only the tortured dying can, and when he opened them again, he felt empty, devoid of both will and want, floating in a spherical prison beside a dead-eyed boy wearing a Billabong shirt.
Steve Maus is the author of the novels Branchwater and Madeline City and other tales. He currently attends Rio Salado College and works at the bookstore on campus. He lives in Tempe, struggling to find time to read and write.