An experiment in literature, philosophy, and the wonders of the internet

Monday, December 12, 2005

Steven

Okay you guys, this is a weird one. I'm not totally sure what all happens at the end. It's kind of strange.

Steven

The only witnesses of the creation of the enormous crater that appeared one day in Steven’s expansive backyard weren’t talking. There were two does and one fawn, a number of songbirds, though they weren’t particularly paying attention, and a badger who, upon seeing the event shuffled back to his subterranean home to guess at the significance of the giant hole and the thing that had caused it. He didn’t even come close.

Steven found the crater the next day, which happened to be January 16th, his birthday. He’d been born in 1972, making him 33. His lonely celebration had been relatively uneventful, but then again, the quiet life was the reason he’d moved to the mountains in the first place. The appearance of the crater, you can well imagine, was quite upsetting to him. He wasn’t sure when it had happened, exactly – there hadn’t been any unusual noises the night before, and he hadn’t noticed anything during the day either, though he’d been at work for the greater part of the day and hadn’t looked into his yard when he came home. That narrowed the window of opportunity for any crashing meteors or whatever it had been to between ten in the morning and six-thirty at night. In any case, he looked out the rear picture window Saturday morning and saw first the monstrous slabs of rock, geometric and jagged, that ringed the smoldering pit. The black stones jutted fifteen feet up into the air, and were lined with cracks and veins of dull gray. Enclosed within them the crater could not be seen from the house, but smoke billowed copiously from the center of the inverted and truncated cone of rock.

Steven stepped out of his house to investigate this new edifice that now dominated the serene view of the surrounding mountains. He walked to the edge of the crater, standing in a gap between two elephantine pillars. The smoke, dark gray and thick, wafted ever upward, obscuring the bottom of the hole from sight. Steven selected a moderately sized stone, this one round and smooth in contrast to the intimidating black monuments that had been thrust out of the ground by the impact – or possibly the eruption. The situation was upsetting, but Steven resolved to figure out at least a piece of the puzzle. He reared back and tossed the stone into the gaping cavern.

Chink

It hit a wall.

Clack

Was that another wall?

There was a noise, like the combination of an un-oiled hinge and a human voice making an interrogative grunt, best written out as “Err? Steven didn’t know what to make of it, so it was lucky he didn’t have enough time to make anything of it at all. A moment later, the sounds of an avalanche reverberated up the unusually slick walls. Steven jumped back, though he saw nothing move in the pit and the juggernaut of smoke poured upward.

Steven backed away from the crater, keeping his eyes on it not out of fear but mostly curiosity and perhaps a pinch of reluctance to leave. It wasn’t often that enormous holes were suddenly manifest, and this one seemed stranger than most (not that Steven had much reference for dealing with this sort of thing). Still peering over his shoulder – the column of smoke had to be at least twenty feet across at the base – he climbed the porch stairs and reentered his house, a plan forming in his mind. He looked up the Geological Society of the Americas in his phone book.

He had a hard time describing the situation to the operator who picked up the phone – partially because of his inexperience with rock formations but primarily because she refused to believe him, saying that they had received a number of prank calls in the past.

“Really? People prank call the Geological Society?”

“You wouldn’t believe it.” She sighed. “Well, Dr. Abrhams always says geology is a sacred trust, so he’d be upset if he didn’t hear about this. If you ask me, either you’re some punk with a wild goose chase or it was a landmine or something.”

“A landmine? Are you crazy?” But the secretary, whose name was Cynthia, had already transferred him to this Dr. Abrhams, who apparently saw the study and classification of rocks as a sacred trust somehow.

“Dr. Abrhams, UC Boulder Geology Department.”

His voice was soft and deep, and hinted that he wasn’t from Colorado. When Steven mentioned his problem, however, the doctor’s voice lost its benevolent Southern charm for a gruff accusatory tone.

“You’re not yanking my chain, are you boy? Where did you say this hole turned up?”

“Listen, I’m not some teenager looking for kicks with a bunch of geologists, alright?” Steven was getting upset. “I’m a full grown man, and I want to know where this goddamn hole came from!”

“Well, alright, but I’m warning you. If this is Pete or one of his friends again I’m calling the cops. Where’s this hole?”

Steven gave Dr. Abrhams directions to his mountain home, which put the scientist’s mind at ease – apparently the pranksters generally struck in the metropolitan Boulder area. He agreed to come by the next day.

Dr. Abrhams was a short man with wiry and spiraling gray hair that framed his gleaming bald head. His face was round, but not pudgy, and his goatee and mustache still retained remnants of his former black hair. He was stocky but deceptively athletic; one might believe he lived a decadent life until one shook his hand, when it became clear that his additional mass was the result of physical labor, not sloth. He arrived at Steven’s house bright and early, accompanied by a posse of graduate students. The three students bore a remarkable resemblance to each other from a distance. They exuded confidence from their laughing and handsome facades. Each was dimple-chinned and tanned, and they talked loudly as they passed bulky loads of gear back and forth with apparent ease. Steven watched them gather and peer into the crater from his house before coming out to meet them. Dr. Abrhams saw him coming and went to intercept him, holding out his bone-crushing hand.

“Mr. Harkin!”

“Yes, that’s me, Mr. Abrhams.”

Doctor Abrhams, Mr. Harkin!” shouted one of the students from the edge of the pit, eliciting peals of laughter from his cohorts for some unknown reason as they strapped on their headlamps and rappelling kits.

Abrhams gave a small deprecating smile, spreading his arms wide in a show of self-consciousness. “Well, it’s true I suppose.” Steven started to apologize, but Dr. Abrhams brushed it off and bustled on.

“I take my job very seriously, Mr. Harkin. I’ve been on every major geological expedition in Colorado for the past twelve years. Recently some old students of mine have taken to sending me on false leads, so I hope you’ll excuse my prior skepticism. This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“You don’t know what it is?”

“No sir, I can’t say that I do.” He put on his own headlamp and threw Steven a wink. “That doesn’t mean I won’t find out. You just go about your business and don’t mind us or the crater. With a hole this size it’ll probably take us all day to explore it. Take this walkie-talkie and I’ll give you a ring if anything goes wrong.”

Steven took the small radio. “I’ll just be in the house then.”

Dr. Abrhams grinned, clicked his light on in salute, and turned back to the matter at hand.

Steven returned to his house, poured a cup of coffee, cracked open his book and enjoyed the last peaceful day of his life.

Steven’s living room was in the front of his house, so he didn’t see the two figures emerge from the crater late that afternoon. If he had witnessed them, if he had heard their frantic gibbering this story would probably have a much different ending, but as it was he didn’t see the two surviving students make their wounded and lopsided beeline for the car, and so he assumed that the day’s work had been completed without incident when he noticed the car was gone. He thought it odd that Dr. Abrhams hadn’t come by to relay their findings, but decided to simply call on Monday.

“Doctor… Abrhams?” the secretary said. “There’s nobody by that name here.”

“Nobody… what do you mean? I just saw him yesterday!”

“Sir, that’s impossible. We don’t have anybody named Abrhams here.”

“Listen, this is Cynthia, isn’t it? You mentioned him by name last time I talked to you!”

“Sir, I don’t know who you are but we have enough problems with teenagers to worry about full-grown pranksters.”

“I’ve had enough of this. I happen to know for a fact that he works at the university. I’ll go see him myself.”

“Suit yourself sir, but you won’t find him there.”

“Right. Goodbye.” He hung up, thoroughly exasperated, before she had a chance to reply. He put on his coat and got in the car.

It was usually a forty-five minute drive to Boulder, but between the traffic and his own exasperation Steven felt like he’d been in the car for days. What the hell was going on? Had he met an imposter? What would somebody impersonate a geologist? In any case, he knew there was a Dr. Abrhams somewhere – the very woman he’d just talked to had spoken to him on Saturday. Why was she denying it? None of it made any sense. And he remembered the hole in his yard too – though three days had gone by the smoke that originated deep inside the earth had not lessened in the slightest. What the hell was happening? Visions of hellish demons, extraterrestrials, and government conspiracies flashed across his mind as he pulled into the parking garage.

Pearl Street was crowded as usual. All around him people hurried, blissfully ignorant of what was happening in the mountains. Previously he hadn’t seriously considered any possibility but natural causes, a meteor or an underground volcano, but with the disappearance of Dr. Abrhams the whole ordeal took on a far more sinister tone.

His thoughts drowned out the street sounds, but one voice cracked his psychic shell.

“I saw it!”

Steven turned.

“I saw it. I was there! I saw it!”

On the stoop of an apartment building sat a disheveled homeless man, a half empty bottle of malt liquor beside his akimbo nest of found objects. His head was deeply tanned and spherically contoured, like a set of bocce balls stuffed in a nylon sack. His beard hung down to his knees from his leering stooped position. He raised the bottle to his lips and then cried again, “I saw it! The hole, Timmy! I saw the hole!”

Steven gasped, and looked closer at the man – yes, that round face, those callused hands (though they seemed more callused today) – except for the enormous tangled beard and the bleary red-rimmed eyes, it was him! It was Abrhams!

“You? How? What happened?”

“I saw it! I saw it and I lived it! I lived it again! The hole, Tim, I lived the hole! I lived it and I lived it again! I lived my whole life in the hole, then I lived my hole life on the whole! Go down to the hole! Timothy, find the hole Steven!”

Steven ran. The man was obviously insane. He knew his name though – he’d said it at the end. Could it have been a coincidence? No, that was Abrhams alright. Who could know what had happened to him. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew the only way he’d figure out the mystery would be by going down himself. Could he risk it? He didn’t know. But an even less pleasant prospect was allowing the pit to remain in his yard unexplained. Whatever had happened to Abrhams he couldn’t allow to happen to himself, but he couldn’t shake the man’s last desperate insistence – “find the hole Steven.” What could it mean? Steven made up his mind.

He raced back in record time. At the edge of the crater he saw that the ropes from the expedition still hung down, but he still couldn’t see the bottom. He steeled himself and began his descent.

He had only been climbing down for a few moments before his feet touched a hard surface. He looked in surprise to find a spiraling staircase, which though he couldn’t say he expected it, was simply a secondary enigma to the greater puzzle. He let go of the rope and continued down the stairs.

The smoke, which smelled of burning flesh and cinnamon, pushed upward while the stairs wheeled ever downward. Somehow the darkness was even more stifling than the thick cloudy column, so after hours of descent he was relieved to see a dim light growing brighter far below his feet. It seemed to emanate from a lateral cavern at what must have been the bottom of the cavern. Excited by the prospect of an imminent resolution, Steven broke into a stumbling run down the stair. He noticed the light was growing brighter by its own accord, not just in proportion to his increasing proximity. Then it burst – the ubiquitous smoke seemed to catch fire as the pale blinding light surrounded him. Steven screamed, first in surprise, then in supreme pain, and finally in ecstasy. He felt his skin first and then his soul on fire, and then, in another moment, he was gone.

On January 16th, 1972, Steven Harkin was born again. This time, however, he was born to Ray and Mona Keller, and was christened Timothy. Baby Timothy, lying in the hospital surrounded by other babies, looked in wonder at the world around him and marveled at the world he had known. He burped, and then he giggled. His parents cooed at him from behind a glass wall.

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