While landscaping his backyard, ever-conscientious Paul Prentice discovers an iron door buried in the soil. His childhood friend and perpetual source of mischief, Jay Lightsey, pushes them to explore what's beneath.
When the door slams shut above them, Paul and Jay are trapped in a between-worlds place of Escher-like rooms and horror story monsters, all with a mysterious connection to a command-line, dungeon explorer computer game from the early ‘80s called The Between.
Paul and Jay find themselves filling roles in a story that seems to play out over and over again. But in this world, where their roles warp their minds, the biggest threat to survival may not be the Koŝmaro, risen from the Between's depths to hunt them; the biggest danger may be each other.
Follow Paul and Jay through the iron door in THE BETWEEN by Ryan Leslie—out next Tuesday, April twenty-seventh. Pre-order your copy NOW!
CHAPTER ONE: Be Human, Paul Prentice
Paul’s shovel hit something hard, something that shouldn't have been there in the clay soil of his suburban backyard, and the jolt from the impact shook him out of the robotic work-trance he had been in all morning. He frowned at the shovel like it had failed him and wiped his brow with a sleeve that was already soaked with sweat from the Texas summer sun.
When he had told Julie that he planned on doing the landscaping work himself, she gave him an amused look that said, oh you silly creature who never learns. It was a look he had grown quite familiar with over the five years of their marriage. You would think, with Julie’s track record of being right, Paul would recognize that look as a signal to rethink the ill-considered plan he had enthusiastically described to her. Instead, even with his history of failures, he took that look of hers as a challenge, an opportunity to prove her wrong. And so, each time, her look became a little more amused, he became a little more determined, and the failure became a little more spectacular.
This time was proving to be no different.
Mounds and mounds of dirt surrounded him, and yet he had only cleared away about a third of the dirt on the slope leading down to his kitchen door. After the hard rain in May when water ran from an overflowing spring two blocks to the north, the water had cascaded down his backyard like a waterpark ride, pooling outside the kitchen, rising inch after inch, threatening catastrophic damage to their non-flood-insured home.
Min-woo Kim, their neighbor across the street, said they needed a retaining wall and a channel to clear the water to the side of the house. Paul put a quick estimate of the materials at about a grand, give or take. The first contractor came back with a quote of $4,500, and the second doubled that, including a rainwater collection system Paul neither asked for nor wanted.
He convinced himself that the work would be, if not fun exactly, rewarding in an evolutionary psychology kind of way, releasing the primal drive to build shelter, to homestead. Or something like that. And maybe Julie would be impressed. Those good spirits lasted about an hour and a half into the actual digging, when the morning clouds had been burned away and the temperature crept toward triple digits.
And now he had hit something solid with his shovel. Probably a limestone boulder he’d have to unearth, and then he’d need Jay’s truck to pull it loose. Saturday would end with little to show for it, and tonight Julie would ask, “How’s it going out there, sweetie?” and he’d say, “Just super. Everything according to plan. Pass the bourbon.”
He should've hired the work done. He and Julie had the money after all, but Paul was still trying to recover financially from the statue incident back in the spring. He wasn’t being cheap. There was a difference between being cheap and being a good steward of family resources.
He’d actually said those words out loud in April when Julie deleted the household budget spreadsheet he’d spent an entire weekend setting up, complete with electronic feeds of their bank transactions, credit card purchases, and brokerage data. She even nuked the cloud backup of the file.
“Normal people don’t use phrases like good steward of family resources, Paul. This is a marriage, not a corporate cost center, capeesh?” she said. “To make up for budgeting me discretionary spending of $200 a month—a fucking allowance!—I need to see an act of unadulterated frivolity. For penance, you must buy something irrationally expensive. On a whim. I know you can do it. I’ve seen you drop a couple hundred bucks on an old, stinky book.”
“I’ve collected rare books as long as you’ve known me.”
“Oh, yes. Collecting. Investing. Every purchase rationalized away and properly accounted for. But I want to see if you’re capable of letting loose, Mr. Accountant. So no books, got it? Un-a-dul-ter-a-ted fri-vol-i-ty.” She emphasized every syllable of his lexical kryptonite. “It should feel like getting a tattoo. If some part of your brain isn’t screaming this is a bad idea! while another part is screaming do it do it do it! then you’ve failed. Be human, Paul Prentice.”
It was the be human comment that really got to him.
I’ll show her unadulterated frivolity, he thought. A week later, at the Wayland Gallery on West Sixth, a short walk from their house, he spent almost five thousand dollars on a wooden statue called First Mother. A six-foot-tall, buffalo-headed, pregnant nude carved in American basswood. The gallery owner claimed it was a feminist, Native American re-spinning of the Greek minotaur figure. Or something like that.
Julie had seemed quite taken by the statue when they saw it in the gallery together. When she encountered it unexpectedly standing in the corner of their living room, on the other hand, it nearly gave her a heart attack.
First Mother stared out the living room window at Paul with her accusatory animal eyes, arms crossed on her distended, pregnant belly. How fitting was it that he had a shovel in his hand, with the figurative hole he was digging himself out of with Julie, and the statue-shaped hole in their bank account?
He gave the statue a half-hearted smile that looked more like a wince and then put his focus back on the problem at hand. The rock in the ground. He moved about a foot to the left of where he’d been digging and jammed the shovel down into the clay. Boom! He hit the rock again, but this time it echoed, almost like a great bell had rung.
“Are you kidding me?” he muttered and tried again another foot over.
Confused, he looked to the left and right. It did sound like a bell, or at least something metal, and the sound seemed to come from all around him. He began scraping away at the top of the soil.
Ten minutes later, he had uncovered a rusty iron door.
Over the next several hours, Paul avoided the door as if he had never seen it, as if it weren’t a persistent void on the edge of his periphery. When Julie came home around 6, sweaty herself from a 90-minute hot yoga session (why anyone would pay for 100 degree studio time when the Texas summer supplied it for free, Paul had no idea), he saw her through the kitchen window and ran inside to meet her. He rambled on a bit about hitting some snags here and there, rocks in the soil, one big rock really but nothing he couldn’t handle, and the unforeseen time it was taking to get the angles right. Without the right angles—the correct angles, he should say--what was the point? She didn’t need to go back there. Stuff to trip on. Hard to gauge progress without understanding his master plan. Would she like to see his master plan?
He didn’t tell her about the door, because telling her about the door meant worrying her needlessly, and anyway, he had stopped acknowledging the existence of the door, so there was really nothing to tell her.
Julie gave him an arched right eyebrow. “I’m sure your master plan is quite masterful, but I’m taking a shower. Will you be done before Jay and Min-woo get here? Aren’t they coming over to watch a boxing match or something?”
The boxing match! He had almost forgotten! The backyard would have to wait. Paul turned on the television, set the DVR to record—in case Min-woo was late, as usual—and went out to sit on his front porch in the still-100-degree early evening. Not thinking about the door.
An hour or so later Jay pulled up in an old pickup truck that had recently developed the same, strange gurgling exhaust note that all of Jay’s previous automobiles eventually produced. Gugguta-guggutagugguta. Jay stepped out onto the curb and held in his outstretched right hand a six-pack of Carta Blanca longnecks like he was Perseus proudly displaying the head of Medusa. The beer’s cardboard carrier box chose that moment to give out. In the Greek myth, which Paul knew well, two drops of Medusa’s blood dripped from her severed head, forming the winged horse Pegasus and the winged boar Chrysaor. Instead of drops of blood, however, two beer bottles fell from the carrier box and exploded on the concrete curb, soaking Jay’s jeans. No winged animals appeared.
"Uh. Two of the three beers I brought for you just exploded," Jay said.
Paul laughed so hard he started choking. Jay scowled and cursed, but soon wore the crooked, dopey grin Paul had seen almost daily since they had met in elementary school over twenty years ago. Jay seemed to have changed less during that time than anyone else Paul knew. He had the same curly hair that always ended up going every which direction. The same way of walking without swinging his arms, strides a bit too long, his whole body bobbing up and down like a boat on rough water. Or better yet, with his gaunt frame and exaggerated features, like a big marionette. Of course, now there was the receding hairline, perpetual scruff, and an almost imperceptible sadness in his eyes that hadn’t always been there. But otherwise, Jay was the same gangly kid he’d always been, just in manchild form.
“Oh, those were my beers that broke, were they?” Paul jumped down from the porch and met him on the sidewalk. He still found it strange to shake Jay’s hand. Not that handshakes, in general, were strange. Okay, maybe a bit, with the weird masculine display of hand strength, where you have to look strong without looking like you’re trying to look strong, grasping the opposing hand somewhere in a Goldilocks Zone of firmness. Other men seemed to approach handshakes naturally, but Paul always became self-conscious, which sometimes ended up with an incomplete latch, his fingers getting squeezed, and both parties pretending like this social failure hadn’t just happened.
Second-grade Paul hadn’t started by shaking second-grade Jay’s hand after the incident at the swing-set during recess. It must’ve been college before they switched from non-hand-shakers to hand-shakers. Jay surely extended that first palm, having picked up the habit from all that hanging out in bars he did. And still did. Lots of handshaking between tipsy men in bars.
They shook hands (successfully), and Jay pulled him in for a half-hug. The hugging was a newer phenomenon than the hand-shaking and usually meant Jay had been drinking. But Jay pulled back after encountering a cocktail of sweat, mosquito repellent, and spray-on sunscreen from Paul’s shoulder.
“Is the big fight on, or are we still in the undercard?” Jay asked, and then, with a step back and a look like he’d smelled something wretched, added, “What the hell are you doing out here, anyway? It’s hotter than the devil’s asshole. You’re all sweaty and stinky.”
What had Paul been doing for the last hour? Not thinking about the door—that was for sure. “I was, uh, working in the backyard. Lost track of time. Don’t worry about the fight. I’m recording it. Min-woo’s always late, anyway, and we should wait for him before we start watching. Maybe I should go get cleaned up. De-stink. You mind?”
“No, I prefer you stinky and sweaty.” Jay narrowed his eyes and then added, “You’re acting weird. What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” Paul said before he could catch himself. Besides his wife Julie, the other person he couldn’t lie to was Jay. Jay had a sixth sense about people and lies. One of Jay’s bizarre talents which worked especially well on Paul. All the air seemed to rush out from him, and he sat hard on the porch step.
Jay sat down next to him and used the step’s edge to bang off the caps of two of the beers. “Here you go. Now, whatever it is, out with it.”
“I found something, and it’s got me a little freaked out,” Paul said.
Jay nodded solemnly, took a deep breath, and asked, deadpan, “Is it a lump on one of your nuts?” He folded his arms and shook his head. “It’s all that sitting on a bicycle you do. I told you that can’t be good for the boys. But we’ll get through it. Same thing happened to Lance Armstrong, and with one ball he still won all those bicycle races. Of course, he was blasting steroids up his ass the entire time. All I’m saying is there’s hope.”
Paul took a long pull on the beer and said, “Are you quite done?”
“Done? Me? Never.” It was true. If you gave Jay empty space, he tended to fill it, Robin Williams style. The best way to keep Jay from descending into manic zaniness was to keep him occupied.
“I found a door,” Paul started, and before he knew it, he was unloading all these fears he had surrounding the door that hadn’t even cohered yet in his own mind. What the hell was under his yard, maybe even under his house? Could the whole house fall in, like what happens with sinkholes sometimes, and would his insurance even cover that? What if it happened when they were sleeping? What if the door led to a secret torture room or a burial chamber full of bodies? Austin had its own Jack the Ripper back around the turn of the twentieth century. Maybe this was the killer’s hideout. It’s why the city built the moontowers around here a century ago, to try to make this area safer at night. It had happened right here! And what about Julie? What would Julie think with a crypt or something just feet from where they slept?
Jay listened without interrupting, without smiling when Paul’s rambling grew more and more absurd.
“You’re free to tell me I’m being an idiot,” Paul finally said after running out of horror story scenarios involving the door. Jay shrugged and opened a second beer for himself. He offered the last one to Paul, but Paul’s was still mostly full. “So ... you’re being an idiot.”
“Thanks. You’re a fucking pal.”
Jay winked and jumped to his feet. “I don’t see why a crypt full of dead bodies has to be creepy. You didn’t even have to pay extra for it. Free square footage, man! And if it is a secret torture chamber, think of how much fun you can have terrorizing the neighbor kids during Halloween. You could even charge for admission, with a royalty coming back to me for giving you the idea.”
“Is this supposed to make me feel better?” Paul asked.
“Laughter is the best medicine. That’s what they say, right?”
“I’m not laughing.”
Jay squinted at Paul and slowly nodded his head. “Hmm. You aren’t laughing. Maybe you’re failing to see the ridiculousness of the situation. Is that a word? Ridiculousness? Or is it ridiculosity?” He didn’t wait for an answer and grabbed Paul by the forearm, yanking him to stand up.
Paul pulled his arm away. “What the hell are you doing?”
“We’re trading places,” Jay said. He sat on the porch, where Paul had been sitting. “I’m Paul now, and you’re me. I mean, you’re Jay. Now ask me why I look like someone stuck a booger in my peanut butter sandwich.”
Paul rolled his eyes. “This is stupid.” But Jay kept giving him that crooked grin, and Paul knew damn well that Jay would keep at it until Paul played along. “Fine. Okay, I’m Jay. Look at me being Jay.” Paul walked in circles in his front yard without swinging his arms, taking overly-long strides, and bobbing his head. “I’m walking around being Jay, looking like a doofus.”
“Very funny,” Jay said. “Now ask me about the door.”
Paul curled his lip and asked, Elvis-like, “What’s the deal with the door?”
“I’m sitting here overthinking things, as usual, you know, being Paul,” Jay said, voice raised a half-octave, face contorted like he was constipated. “I got all worked up about a door I found buried in my backyard, but it’s probably just something a construction crew buried, but I’m gonna worry about it anyway until my handsome and much smarter friend Jay, who by the way has a much bigger penis, comes and checks it out for me.”
“I don’t talk like that,” Paul said. “And anyway, what the hell is the purpose of this?”
“I have no idea,” Jay said, springing to his feet. “You think I’m Dr. Phil or something? It’s time to go check out this door of yours.”
Their back-and-forth imitations had lightened Paul’s mood, but when Jay started walking toward the side of the house, Paul’s sense of dread returned. “What about the fight?”
Jay looked back over his shoulder, grin wider than ever. “Paused, mofo. Like you said. Now let’s go!” And with that, he skipped toward the backyard like they were on their way to second-grade recess.
CHAPTER TWO: The Call of the Void
With the sun finally set, the main light source near the iron door was a bug zapper hanging from the lone pecan tree, casting an orange glow that flared and crackled every few seconds as a winged insect met its demise. The orange cast made the door look like it had been heated to near melting by a magma-filled cavern below, as though it opened directly to a fiery hell. That image pushed Paul over his limit —time to call the whole thing off, come back one morning, possibly with a cement truck and trained professionals who could fill up any sinkhole, or crypt, or gateway to Hell that sat under his backyard.
But Jay had already seen the door. Paul’s heart caught in his throat as he watched Jay run straight toward it, jump, and land hard right in the door’s center with both feet. The door boomed with the impact but held.
“Jesus, man! You’re gonna get yourself killed!”
Jay dropped to his hands and knees so he could examine the door up close. Without looking back, he said, “You’re always saying I’m gonna get myself killed, and how many times has it happened so far?”
“It only takes once.” A montage of near-Jay-deaths played through Paul’s head. The fall from the tree with the rope swing freshman year. The rollover of Jay’s old Isuzu Trooper in the high school parking lot. The water moccasins in Lake Austin when they were jumping off the rocks back in middle school, or maybe fifth grade. And the first near-death experience, the one they never spoke of. But that wasn’t Jay’s near-death. That was Paul’s.
Jay traced the edges of the door like an archaeologist who had discovered the entrance to a secret Egyptian tomb, brushing aside dirt, nodding his head knowingly. “There’s a chamber of some kind here,” he said. “No doubt about it. See how it’s set into concrete? Look at the size of these hinges. I bet this door weighs a hundred pounds.” He hopped off and grabbed the door’s handle. He yanked twice, creating more reverberating booms, but the door didn’t open.
Paul shifted his weight from one foot to the other and waved off the mosquitos that had started orbiting his head. “It’s too dark to see anything. Min-woo’s coming over to watch the fight also, remember? He’s probably at the front door wondering where the hell we are. We can fuck with this tomorrow.”
“Julie can let Min-woo in,” Jay said, fishing his cell phone out of his pocket. After a few taps on the phone’s screen, the door and its surrounding few feet shone under the phone’s piercing little LED flashlight. “Ah! Here’s the problem. A padlock. Numbers are all rusted off, but it looks like one of those old standard kinds like we used to have on our lockers.”
A wave of relief washed through Paul. If the door was locked, they’d need a locksmith or maybe some bolt cutters. Can you cut through a padlock with bolt cutters? He didn’t know, and it didn’t matter, because he didn’t own any. The door would have to wait for another day. He told Jay as much, but his single-minded friend remained hunched over, ass in the air, ear pressed against the back of the padlock, twisting the lock’s dial slowly.
Jay held a long, bony finger up to his lips, balancing in the world’s worst yoga pose. “Shhhhhh. I’m demonstrating my lock-picking skills. Did you know I have lock-picking skills?”
“You should add that to your online dating profile,” Paul said. “Proficient in lock-picking and masturbation.” He expected some sort of response, but Jay was focused on the lock. The longer Jay kept twirling the dial back and forth, the more Paul’s anxiety returned. “We’ll mess with it next weekend. We could be inside right now watching boxing and drinking beer. Oh, and I’ve got some new bourbon you need to try. Cask strength, eighteen years old. Knockout stuff.” He cringed at that last bit, hearing himself encouraging Jay’s drinking.
“Quit the chitter-chatter,” Jay said, not taking the bait. “I need silence for this to work.” Jay twisted the dial slowly to the right for two or three full rotations and then nodded. He adjusted it slightly to the left. Nodded again. Ninety or so degrees back to the right.
“You have no idea what you’re doing,” Paul said.
“Is that so? Witness my excellence,” Jay said, and with a SNAP! the lock popped open.
The door was heavy and took both of them to pull it open. Paul almost fell in, and when Jay grabbed his shirt, he almost fell in as well, as if the yard suddenly sloped down and toward the hole.
“Mother of God,” Paul said, backing away from the open black hole in the middle of his yard.
Jay wasn’t smiling anymore. “Mother o’ God indeed, man. That’s a serious goddamn hole.” He got down on his knees and knee-walked until he was a foot away from its edge. “Feel that? Come closer, Paul. Careful, though, I can’t see the bottom. Feel how cold it is?”
The cold air reached Paul’s ankles first and then ran up his body like little spiders. Worse than the cold was the smell. Damp. Bitter, aggressive mold. An earthy smell so strong that he could taste it in his mouth when he inhaled. A smell that dug up memories Paul had kept buried deep in his mind. When the memories came loose, they flooded into him, filthy water pushing through his nose and into his sinuses, pushing down his throat, filling him with that rotten smell, that feeling of being taken over by something alive and alien.
A look of alarmed confusion came over Jay. “Dude. You need to sit down or something. You look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul spat. “I’m fine.”
Jay eyed him suspiciously.
Paul walked forward two steps, even though every part of him wanted to turn and run. “I’m fine,” he repeated. He could hear the unsteady tone of his voice.
Jay stared at him for several seconds and then shrugged and pointed his phone’s light down into the hole. “There’s a ladder. Room doesn’t look very big, but it’s hard to tell without going down.”
“So go down, then,” Paul said. “Or don’t.” Now he was getting reckless. The ladder could disintegrate under Jay’s weight. But when Jay started lowering himself down, Paul didn’t protest.
A black mass slid across the moon. Where had the cloud come from? Hadn’t it been wide open sky all day? All the stars seemed to have gone out. Even with the city’s light pollution, Paul could always see a few stars. So maybe more clouds had rolled in. A toad near the edge of the fence started croaking, like a squeaky door hinge opening and closing. All that came from the moontower, somewhere beyond the trees, was the hint of a dying sun setting for the final time. So much for casting out the hiding places of serial killers.
A thudding came from the hole, getting louder and louder until Jay’s head re-emerged.
“You have to come down here, man,” Jay said, crooked grin illuminated by the phone in his hand. “We’ve got ourselves a cool little hangout. There’s a sofa and all these bookshelves full of old books. I think we may have hit the Paul Prentice jackpot! Could be some rare stuff down here!”
The crescent moon reappeared, and its light seemed to push away the musty smell coming out of the hole—either that or Paul had gone nose-blind to the smell. Had a menacing darkness really come over the backyard, or had he been about to pass out? What had Jay said about books? Rare books? Paul took a deep breath and said, “Let me run inside and get a real flashlight. And make sure Min-woo isn’t waiting on us.”
Jay gave him an amused nod as if he could see the mental handwringing going on inside his friend’s head. Jay didn’t protest or rush him, but Paul still hustled. He grabbed the big, aluminum Maglite from under the kitchen sink and then almost had a heart attack when he walked into the living room and saw First Mother standing there in the corner like a monster hiding in the shadows.
No sign of Min-woo. As he jogged back toward the kitchen, he noticed that the light in the study was on. Julie sat with her back toward the door, framed by the light of her laptop. She had her big headphones on and was bopping her head to music only she could hear. He had a sudden urge to tell her about the hole and let her be the one to ruin Jay’s fun. You’re not exploring this thing at night. No fucking way, she’d say. That would be that. Jay wouldn’t argue with Julie.
But Paul couldn’t let Julie do his dirty work, so he gave himself a brief second to watch her and to breathe in the Julie-ness of the moment before he went back outside.
The Maglite, with its four D batteries, put out a cone of light like a magic wand. Jay’s eyes glimmered in reflection before he threw his hand up. “Are you trying to blind me or something?” he said before he ducked back into the darkness.
“Sorry,” Paul said, too quiet for Jay to hear. He stared at the hole. Everything in the world ceased to be, except for Paul and the square of black directly in front of him. The emptiness pulled at him. It grabbed a hold of the part of him that couldn’t resist peering into the void.
Come down here with me, Paul Prentice. Come.
He walked to its edge and looked down. With Jay flashing his phone around the room below, there was no void for Paul to see. He felt cheated, and at the same time horrified at himself for feeling cheated. He let out a deep breath and shined the Maglight down.
A room, like Jay had said. A 1970’s worn, plaid sofa sat against one of the concrete walls, and bookshelves lined the others, with one tall bookshelf directly across from the sofa that stretched almost from the floor to the ceiling. From above, the room seemed small, but it must’ve been fifteen by fifteen, and at least ten feet high—or, he supposed, ten feet deep.
He descended carefully, the flashlight in his left hand, the side of the metal ladder gripped tightly in his right. Some part of his brain was already doing math: maybe twenty-five books per shelf, times 1-2- 3-4-5-6-7-8-9 shelves. Two-hundred twenty-five books, give or take. A nice little library. What the hell was it doing down here?
“Hold this,” he said, handing the flashlight to Jay. If it hadn’t been for the books, he would’ve wondered about the temperature; cold enough to make them both shiver, too cold to be explained by simply being underground. Bookshelves were Paul’s catnip. Any time he went into a new house—friends, colleagues, etc.—and he passed by a bookshelf, he found himself compelled to stop. You could tell a lot about a person by what books they kept. Which ones looked old and worn, read and reread. Which were new and untouched. Lots of nonfiction showed a hunger for learning. The classics showed a person was thorough and patient (unless the books all had aging college bookstore stickers on them). Self-help books showed a healthy introspection, unless there were too many, or heaven forbid the only books on the shelves. He loved knowing a person’s home genre, so to speak.
Someone had built this underground library. What did the books say about them? He pulled one at random from the shelf and immediately recognized it. “Jay,” he said. “Jay! You have to see this.”
“It’s a book,” Jay said.
“Not just a book. It’s the first US printing of The Stranger. Probably from ’46 or ’47. I shouldn’t even be handling it without gloves.” He shivered, either from the cold or from the exhilaration of finding a first edition he had dreamed of owning. He started to open it but imagined his unsteady hands tearing the 70-year-old pages, and instead held it tightly shut.
The whole room seemed to quiver as Jay walked up next to him with the flashlight. “Never heard of it. Is it valuable?”
“Is it valuable? You’ve never heard of The Stranger? Albert Camus? Maybe the most famous work of twentieth-century French literature?” Paul heard himself—particularly the way he said al-BER cahMYOOO—and winced. “My lord that sounded pretentious. Sorry.”
“Oh, I’m quite used to it.”
Their breath was condensing into a hazy fog. Paul waved the air clear so he could see Jay’s face. “Sorry,” he repeated. “I’m excited.”
“I’m excited for you,” Jay said in his high-pitched, Paul-impression voice. Jay winked and then shivered, jostling the flashlight, making the room again seem to shake. “But I think I’m ready for that whiskey, now. It’s like we’re in a meat locker down here, and I can’t see anything. I’ll help you do a complete inventory tomorrow. When the sun’s up and I’m wearing a parka.”
It did feel like they were in a meat locker. Paul nodded and started to turn back toward the ladder, but the bookshelves called to him. “Just a couple more.”
Next to The Stranger was a book bound in black leather with inlaid patches of what looked like ostrich skin. On its spine were the words La Nausee. Paul slid the book out gently. The light shone on the rough gilt edges of the pages.
“I think this may be Sartre’s first novel. The title is Nausea in English.” Paul’s heart was beating fast, and his quick breaths were creating so much fog that he could barely see the book in his hands. “It could be the original French edition, or an early limited version, or something. I think I’ve seen this exact version before, and if I recall correctly, it’s worth more than my car.”
“People pay that much for books?” Jay said, stepping up next to Paul and peering over his shoulder. “Shit, if I could find a secret chamber of antique books in my backyard, all my money problems would be solved. Are they all French? Who’s this guy Nabokov over here?” Jay pointed at a book two shelves higher.
Paul put the Sartre back. “Vladimir Nabokov. Despair. Don’t tell me this is the original British version from before World War Two. That’s almost impossible. They were all destroyed in the bombings of the war. This has got to be worth a fortune.”
Jay reached past him for the Nabokov and Paul had to almost physically restrain himself to keep from grabbing it out of Jay’s hands. “Careful with that,” Paul said, regretting it as soon as the words left his mouth.
Jay acted like the book was about to slip out of his hands—“Whoa! Whoa!”—and then shot Paul a snarl. “I’m not an idiot, dumbass.”
“Sorry. I mistook you for the guy who just exploded a couple beers on the street up there.”
For the next few minutes, Paul mentally cataloged the contents on the tallest bookshelf, taking deep breaths each time Jay pulled one out and handled it. He counted several Graham Greenes, including Our Man in Havana, his favorite. Again, probably first edition. He wasn’t about to open the books and risk tearing the pages with his shaking hands. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges. Everything Kafka ever wrote. Hermann Hesse. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. The Catcher in the Rye. And, oddly, an assortment of early, pulp detective novels by Hammett and Chandler.
If he had taught a college-level course on twentieth-century literature, as he often imagined doing instead of managing hospital cost centers, the list of books he would’ve assigned could all have been found on this very shelf.
Something about that was unsettling. A little too coincidental.
“Paul!” Jay was shaking his shoulder. “Paul!”
“What?” Jay shoved a book at him. The Stranger.
“Whoa. Careful, man.”
“Open it.” Jay’s pupils were wide dark holes.
Paul turned the book over in his hands. Pristine, considering its age. Almost like the chamber down here had preserved it. He ran his fingers along the edges of the pages. All smooth, no dog ears, no creases from being pressed against other books. He steadied his hands as best he could and then opened the book to a random page. His heart skipped a beat. Another random page. Then he dropped the book on the ground and picked another from the shelf. After again turning to a random page, he dropped that book as well.
“The pages are all blank.”
“All of them,” Jay said.
“Those books, too?”
“Each and every one.”
Paul’s next breath tasted of mold and slime, of black, stinking water flooding into his sinuses, down his throat, into his lungs. His whole body clenched, doubling him over, trying to expel the water, but what came up instead was a mix of bile and beer.
Jay must’ve thought Paul was about to pass out, and so went to catch Paul just as Paul flailed backward with his arms in a panicked effort to grab the ladder, to get out, and then the flashlight was knocked loose, light spinning around the concrete walls, flashes of the door in the ceiling, the metal ladder, the old plaid sofa, their eyes wide seeing the flashlight in flight, until it hit the ground and all went dark.
The darkness boomed.
“Goddamn!” one or both of them yelled, the black air seeming to intensify the sounds of their voices, their increasingly frantic breathing.
“Jesus, where’s the flashlight?”
“What was that noise?”
They banged and bumped into each other. Paul heard a flat scraping on the ground but realized it was only the sound of his own hands sliding across the floor searching for the flashlight.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck! I want to get out of here!” Paul said.
“Calm down, man. I got the light.”
“Is it broken? Why isn’t it turning on?!”
“Calm down. Here.”
The light came on directly in Paul’s face, from blinding darkness to blinding light. He turned away but orange-purple after-images filled his vision. “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
Jay grabbed him by the shoulder and steadied him. “No big deal, we’re fine. Okay? Now let’s go watch the fight and drink half the bottle of that bourbon. Maybe the whole bottle.”
Paul could just make out the light shining this way and that, while Jay said, “Uhhh…”
Jay’s hand left Paul’s shoulder. After a long exhale, Jay said, “We seem to be missing the ladder.”
Paul blinked until he could make out the colored splotches of the book spines on the shelf in front of him. He turned toward where the ladder should have been and then realized he had instead ended up facing the wrong direction. He grabbed the flashlight out of Jay’s hand and slowly spun all the way around.
“Shine it over there,” Jay said.
“I did. See! Look, no ladder.” Paul knelt down and put one hand to the ground to stabilize himself. “That sound was the door shutting, wasn’t it?”
Jay had his arms out wide, palms up, like he was questioning the universe, or simply reaching his hands where the ladder should be in case their eyes were playing tricks on them. “I don’t get it, man. What happened to the ladder?”
They both turned their gaze upward to where the hatch should have been. Instead of the underside of the iron door, what they saw was uninterrupted concrete.
When the flashlight went out for good, Paul’s mind closed in on him, his whole body closed in on him. The air thickened and became heavy with the smell of earth, earth and rot and death, a smell that reached deep into the locked-away recesses of his memories and pried something loose. His lungs tightened up, refusing to take in more of the sour darkness, but it was already inside. It had always been inside, waiting.
He felt the uncontrollable urge to tear himself free from himself, not knowing what that even meant, but he couldn’t act on the urge because he couldn’t move his arms. He couldn’t stand back up. When did he even fall down? If the sofa weren’t pressing into his back, he’d be flat on the floor, his own weight crushing his lungs, making it impossible to breathe.
Needles prickled every inch of his skin. He had a certainty that the prickling was oxygen deprivation and his whole body was dying. That thought came with waves upon waves of urgency.
The world began to shrink around him, compressing in from every direction. The concrete room with the books and the sofa had changed—he couldn’t see, but he knew it had changed—into a stone cylinder with him at the center. The ground below him became soft sludge, wet and stinking of death.
He was at the bottom of a well.
Water rose around him, seeping up from the ground until it ran into his ears, poured into his mouth and nose, burning his sinuses with its rancid stench. It covered his face in an oily film and pushed its way around his eyes and into his skull. He could feel its devouring black presence entering his mind.
Somewhere in the darkness, in the well with him, a figure emerged, a part of the darkness both living and dead. He saw its ruined canine maw, bone stained brown, flesh turned green and black with mold. Its empty sockets staring into his own eyes.
He couldn’t turn his head. He couldn’t move as the well’s stone walls compressed tighter around him and the rotting dog carcass, pushing it toward him. The collapsing world would crush it into him until it became a part of him, or he became a part of it.
Just like before.
And like before its void eyes stared into him until the darkness smothered his entire being.
Another June night, eighteen years before.
Paul and Jay were in the ranch truck, the torn vinyl bench seat biting into young flesh with every bump in the field.
Jay was driving, despite being only 14, despite the lack of adults for miles.
Jay’s older brothers were off somewhere, killing something with Jay’s dad, who everybody called Big Cal.
Just the two of them. Paul and Jay.
The guns rattled on the rack behind their heads. The .22 they were allowed to shoot, and the big one—the serious one—they weren’t.
The headlamps punched through the night, stirring insects like stars against the darkness. Windows down. Hot night air in their hair.
Paul looked over at his best friend who seemed to gain a decade of maturity whenever they came to the Lightsey family ranch. Earlier, Jay had taught Paul to shoot the .22. He said it was the gun to learn with because it didn’t kick. Jay shot the big one, the one they weren’t supposed to shoot, the one that sounded like a cannon, and they had to put on those hard plastic ear muff things, so they didn’t go deaf from the blasts.
Jay talked like he’d been handling guns all of his life. Out here on his family’s ranch, Jay talked with the confidence that only adults have.
Big Cal, with his menthol cigarette hanging out of his mouth and the sun glaring off his gold-rimmed aviators, never said Jay could take the truck out on the dirt roads and across the fields where there were no roads and across the stream where the water goes over the tires. But he didn’t say not to.
Paul’s parents never would’ve let him come to the Lightsey ranch if they knew about the truck or the guns or the four-wheelers or the rattlesnakes, or if they knew about the swarming Africanized bees that lived in the corner of the bunk-house just feet from where he and Jay slept. “Ignore ’em and they’ll leave you alone,” Jay had said, and it turned out they did.
Jay hit the turn signal and then cranked a hard right on the steering wheel. Paul laughed so hard he snorted. For some reason, nothing right then could be funnier than turn signals in an empty field.
Another turn, to the left this time, again preceded by the clicking signal, and then Jay slammed hard on the brakes, carving ruts into the grass. Paul barely caught himself before smashing into the dashboard. Before Paul could say anything, Jay opened the door and jumped out, .22 rifle in his right hand.
Paul walked around the truck, through the heat and gray exhaust pumping out of the tailpipe, gugguta-gugguta-gugguta, and Jay handed him the gun. “You see,” Jay said, pointing in the path of one of the headlights. Paul didn’t see, so Jay held his arm in front of him, finger pointed out like an arrow.
“Jackrabbit,” Jay said. “They dig holes, break cows’ legs. Cause problems.” He set the rifle in the crook of the truck’s open door and motioned for Paul to grab the gun and line up the shot like he had learned how earlier.
“Dumb fucker’ll stay there all night if I keep the lights on him,” Jay said.
The rifle’s wood stock slipped in Paul’s hand, gaining a frown of disappointment from Jay. Paul had never shot anything living before, never killed anything more than an insect. Shooting the cans earlier was different, right? Or maybe it wasn’t. It wasn’t different to Jay.
Paul leaned in like Jay taught him and placed his finger against the trigger, feeling the curve of cold metal give with the slightest pressure. He lined up the rabbit and a certainty came over him, like the rabbit was already dead, like he’d killed it and pulling the trigger was just snapping his fingers and waking from a dream where the rabbit still lived.
And since the rabbit was already dead, he couldn’t keep looking at it, standing there, eyes shining, looking back at him. The dead rabbit staring back at the boy who snuffed it out. Paul looked everywhere except for the rabbit, ignoring Jay’s impatient exhale. He looked and he saw a line of stone. “Hey, what’s that?” Paul asked, looking for a way out, always a way out. “Those stones?”
Jay frowned and took the gun away. Instead of putting it on its rack strapped to the truck’s rear window, Jay walked around the side of the door, held the forestock steady with his left hand, and put his right eye to the sight.
The rabbit dropped like it had never really been there. Lost in the grass and never thought of again. If Paul fell in the grass and vanished, would the world even notice? Who would say he had ever existed in the first place?
He kept his eyes away from where the rabbit fell, as if there were a void there waiting to pull him in also.
They got back in the truck and were about to drive on back to the bunk-house, but then Jay asked what Paul saw.
That’s how they ended up standing in front of the well.
Rough-hewn limestone blocks, worn and mottled with green-black mold. A ring, three rows high, up to their knees, missing a stone here and there. A ring surrounding a dark abyss.
The boys stood there, silent, goosebumps on their legs from the cold air of the well. An intense smell of earth, of death, and of the life that feeds on death.
The light of the truck’s headlamps behind them created two black stripes on the ground and across the well, the boys’ towering shadows stretching until they became part of the night sky.
If they weren’t looking in the well, they might’ve noticed their shadows changing, growing bigger, blocking out more and more of the light. But they didn’t notice. They only looked into the darkness of the well.
The truck behind them, engine off but left in drive without the parking brake engaged, crept forward.
To Paul, the well looked almost like a dead eye staring up from the ground. He had this urge to lean over it, to look it right in the eye, to stare down death, but he knew it would pull him in with its gaze. And yet he still wanted to put his weight on the crumbling old wall and lean over.
It was this desire—l’appel du vide, the call of the void—that still haunted him two decades later, more so than what happened next, because it was like he asked to be devoured by the well. He chose to keep standing there knowing what would happen.
Jay broke the silence, saying something about how Little Cal talked about an abandoned well once, the last time they were out at the ranch, and how they threw Cadejo, the old black Labrador Retriever, down there after he died instead of burying him. And maybe if Jay hadn’t started talking, they would’ve heard the grass crackling under the tires rolling toward them. Maybe if Paul hadn’t had his hands on the top ring of stone, if he hadn’t been leaned over, entranced by the darkness, he might’ve moved, or at least been knocked clear, like Jay was knocked clear when the truck rolled into them.
Instead, the driverless truck came up behind Paul and pushed him.
Over the stone ring and down into the black depths of the well. And then the truck rolled over the stone ring and high-centered itself.
Cutting out the light of the moon.
Leaving Paul, battered from the fall, in the wet, stinking darkness.