He said, "Go, then. There are other worlds than these."
|"Go, then. There are other worlds than these."
--Jake Chambers, DT 1:The Gunslinger by Stephen King
Stanley Cortland sat at his antique desk, gazing into the crystal ball. It was heavy as he held it in his hand, and a dreamy look held his face. Around him, the room was neat and orderly; chairs and solemn pictures were laid out in neat lines, and even the many books on the high shelf were dust-free. A spotless gray rug covered his floor, except for a square of polished marble tiles that his desk sat upon. He'd had it installed after his accident, to make it more convenient to roll the wheelchair around the desk.
This was the place where he spent most of his time, so this was the place that had to look and feel good. No noise marred his world; no loud neighbors or unruly teenagers in hotrods passing by. He stared into the glass ball, unaware of his surroundings.
He was still for several minutes, lost in thought, then he put the glass orb back on its stand. With a deep sigh, Stanley began his journal entry, searching for something in his static life worth writing about. Nowadays, he only did it for the practice, not because there was anything worth recording.
I love my books and I've always had them with me. Books have helped me to laugh and to love; to go to places I could never get to on my own. They've helped me to forget pain and sorrow and loneliness. Throughout my years, but especially since I was hurt, they have taken me away from this heartless world that I've grown to hate. I'm useless now, and all my friends have...
He paused, unable to concentrate. His gaze returned to what he laughingly called his crystal ball. Sure, the lady at `the world's largest flea market' had told him that it was the real thing, but that only made him scoff at her, without realizing he was using one of his father's mannerisms.
"It will show you worlds that you've only dreamed of," was her foolish promise...as if that would make him more willing to buy. Of course he told her that he didn't believe in such things, and stories like hers would only decrease the value of the thing in his view. But it was a pretty bauble, and in his life there wasn't much room for such useless things...so he brought it home.
Now it seemed that no matter what task he was upon these days, his gaze would always stray towards it--its beauty called to him somehow. Stanley always did his writing on the highly-polished desk, so it seemed logical at the time to keep the glass there where he could look at it often. But it was becoming a constant distraction. Today especially, he had spent inordinate amounts of time looking at it, holding it, and thinking about it. Through the wavy curves of the glass, he could see the book he was re-reading: The Stand, by Stephen King. The bookmark stuck out about halfway through and idly, he wondered if he'd get to read the end before he made his decision. Through the crystal ball, the picture of the two creatures fighting was visible, but somehow bent through the refraction of the glass. He smiled at the illusion, wishing that, like Alice, he could go through the glass and come out on the other side in a different world. Like many other King fans, he had come to love the world of Roland and his ka-tet, and dreamed of having a glorious quest of his own.
Not bloody likely, as long as I'm trapped in this chair, he thought, a rueful smile marring his face. Not exactly the kind of world I would choose. He picked up his pen once again. Should I or shouldn't I? It seems I always come back to this question. Keep living in a world where no one notices if I'm alive, or commit the sin of suicide? And is there a God who would punish me if I did? Who decided it was a sin, anyway, Man or God? Which would be worse-whatever punishment I might receive for my sin or living the life I do now? But, like my dad always told me, "Not to decide IS to decide." By not being able to decide, I decide to stay as part of this hell on earth. As long as I am bound in this wheelchair, I will never be able to enjoy--
He was filled with sadness as once again he had an overwhelming desire to reach for his crystal ball. He leaned forward in the chair and lifted it from its stand without a second thought. He held it close to his face, marveling at the way the colors reflected off of it if he looked at it one way, and how he could see an upside-down vision of the King book if he looked through it another way. He caressed it, thinking of the worlds of fantasy he'd always dreamt being a part of.
A feeling of dizziness suddenly replaced his feelings of longing. It was as though a wind began to rush around him, faster and faster. Bright red and yellow lights crossed his vision, blinding him. A feeling of being chilled overtook his body, and goosebumps broke out on his arms. All of these culminated in a vertigo that gripped him, and before he knew what was happening, the world turned gray and he knew no more for a while.
When Stanley came to, something didn't seem quite right. He expected to find himself on his soft gray rug, after falling there due to dizziness. But what he felt under his cheek was not the softness of the rug, but a hard, hot pavement. So hot that he found himself jumping up from it to escape being burned...and standing there in amazement as he realized that he truly was standing, not sitting in his wheelchair. He was standing on his own two feet, for the first time in over a decade. And it felt wonderful. He looked around him, sure that he was just in an incredibly vivid dream. How could this be so? But slowly he realized that he could see everything that surrounded him, vivid and distinct--the posters on the walls of the train depot he was standing near, the marquee of the cinema nearby, and the incredibly blue sky. A light breeze ruffled his shirt collar and lifted his hair from his sweaty face. He could even see the clouds drifting by on the wind, for God's sake. He sniffed the air, and there was something not quite definable on the air, but it was something not quite...right, he knew that.
He took a deep breath...yes, the air was fresh and invigorating, but underneath was the smell of decay. It reminded him of the time when some raw meat had been kept in the 'fridge for too long, when his housekeeper Emily had gotten ill and wasn't able to come in to clean for over a week. He turned in a small circle, still amazed that he was standing. It felt real--not just his surroundings, but the way he felt inside. He continued to look around, hoping to discover just where he was, and at the same time wondering a bit how he got there. The so-called crystal ball? He shook his head. Impossible. That's the stuff of dreams.
Behind him was the wreckage of an immense and ancient monorail, slightly canted upon the track. It had a smooth bullet shape that was destroyed when it had crashed into two wide, flat metal poles rising vertically from the earth, in stripes of yellow and black. Huge wings of steel peeled back from it on both sides. He started to walk closer, until he began to get the feeling that it was something better left alone. It was almost as though it gave off a bad aura-if he believed in such things. He decided he should listen to his instincts. He walked away from the pink monster, knowing already that he wouldn't be back for a second look.
Instead, he wandered down the quiet street. Like the indefinable, slight odor on the air, that monorail was something he didn't care to know more about. He walked down the street, relishing the quiet at first, until he realized that no one had come into sight since he arrived. There was a definite sense of desertion about this town. All the store windows looked dusty somehow, and bits of debris swirled softly in the street with the breeze. He stopped at a grocery store to look inside, placing his hands to the side of his face to block the glare. What he saw there made him catch his breath and feel dizzy again.
There were corpses in varying stages of decay in neat rows along the sides of the wall. Directly in front of the door, others were piled together, as though they had fallen that way or those who had started out doing the job stopped caring. There were adults and children, some still holding bags of moldering food, some holding their children's hands in a death grip. All of the faces were covered with dried mucus, with terribly swollen, discolored throats. Maggots crawled in and out of places where he didn't want to look. He staggered back, holding his chest and reaching out for support. He pulled back his hand when it came in contact with a dusty newspaper box. Wiping his hand on his pants, he knelt down to read the headline.
"CAPTAIN TRIPS" SUPERFLU RAGES UNCHECKED
Govt. Leaders May Have Fled Country -- Topeka Hospitals
Jammed with Sick,
Pray for Cure
Stanley backed up, shaking his head. Oh, no. This hasn't happened, it can't have. Someone would've told me. Am I dreaming, after all? He looked down at his healthy legs, legs he was all ready beginning to take for granted, wheelchair forgotten until now. But how could I be asleep, when everything seems so real?
He walked away from the store and looked into the next one. He wasn't surprised to see more corpses inside. At least now I know where that awful smell comes from. Stanley decided he didn't want to look any further, and wandered into the street without realizing he was doing it as a way to get as far from the dead as possible.
The question is, what's next? He no longer felt like exploring, and as for the question of why he suddenly could walk, he decided that some things were better off left unchallenged. He walked for what seemed to be an hour, leaving the business section of town and turning down a residential street without thinking about it. Some of the houses had broken windows; several in a row had burned. The sky was turning to soft pink and dark blue; he was beginning to feel it was necessary to find shelter for the night. He looked more closely at the houses he passed by, hoping for one that wasn't too badly damaged.
A small house set back from the road caught his attention. It had a well cared-for black roof and matching shutters. It was the sort of house he'd thought he might live in when he was a boy, long before he learned that he'd be inheriting his parent's old house. It even had a picket fence. How this one escaped vandalism was a mystery, but he was glad to have found it. He headed around to the back of the house, hoping to find an easy way in. The back door was open, swinging on a broken hinge, and the wood was splintered above the doorjamb. Cautiously, he walked through the broken door and entered a small kitchen, expecting to find a mess inside.
Surprisingly enough, it wasn't too bad inside. He located the pantry and searched in the many cubbies and drawers. He found a box labeled Tornado Supplies, filled with a variety of canned goods and even a hand-operated can opener.
He grabbed a can of tuna, even though he knew he probably wouldn't find any Mayo and definitely no bread to go with it. He put the supplies on the counter and opened cupboards, looking for dishes and utensils.
By the time he finished eating, full dark had arrived. Since he had no way to light the house-and not sure he wanted to send out a homing beacon to whoever else may still be wandering the streets-he decided to go to bed. It felt strange to walk through the rooms of someone else's house, looking for a bed. He hoped he wouldn't find another of those horrible corpses; it was too late to look for another house now. For some reason he wasn't entirely sure of, he didn't want to go back outside in the dark, unarmed.
He lay down at last on a small bed, sure that when he awoke, he'd be back in his own room. Or worse, in his wheelchair with a terrible ache in his neck and a grumbling stomach; perhaps, like the bad joke, part of his bedding would be eaten while he dreamt of his dry tuna-fish meal.
He awoke with a scream that made his throat raw. He sat up quickly, breathing heavily and glancing around, sure he would see a jean-jacketed figure with a horribly knowing look in the shadows. In the dream, the man-monster had been chasing Stanley as he raced away in his wheelchair, pushing himself to his limits as he tried to get away. He felt an unreasonable fear even as he tried to tell himself it was just a dream. His throat was dry and his lips felt chapped. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest. Something was hiding in the shadows and alleyways, waiting for him, eyes glowing as it watched Stanley's every move. A frigid cold air surrounded him, making him shiver and the hair stand up on the back of his neck. All he knew was that he had to escape and it was with that frantic feeling that he awoke. As the dream faded, he realized that he was still alone in the unfamiliar house, the covers from the bed thrown to the floor as he had tried to run in his sleep. After many long minutes staring into the darkness of the room, he finally lay down again and tried to rest.
When Stanley awoke, it was to the sound of birds singing, and for the first time in many years he wasn't annoyed by the display. The weak morning sun was just beginning to break through the curtains, but Stanley knew already that it was going to be a beautiful day. As he swung his feet over the side of the bed with an ease that still astounded him, he realized that, even with the poor supper, he felt better than he had in years. Since the accident, I haven't even wanted to get out of bed. He sat there for a moment, remembering the dream he'd had just before waking; an old woman on a porch with a guitar, strumming and singing some old hymn. Just looking at her had made him feel content. It was strange how the dream, and the peaceful feeling it gave him, stayed with him. He didn't often remember his dreams so well.
He returned to the kitchen and found an unopened jar of peanut butter and a box of stale crackers. He made a meal from that, wishing all the while that he'd thought to look for bottles of water in one of the stores he'd passed in the dead town. That finished, he sat on the porch, trying to decide what to do next. It was another beautiful day, but the continuing quiet made him nervous. That and the disturbing dream he'd had the night before made him feel that he must be on his way.
But which way? He felt at a loss without his journal to help him decide. The way he worked things out was to write them down, thinking as he wrote. Well, I won't get anything done like this.
Stanley brushed the last crumbs from his hands and started down the street, feeling that he had a purpose at last. He wished once again for some sort of weapon, which went against all he used to believe in. But somehow in this place, things weren't quite right...and not just because there was no one in town. He remembered last night's dream as the wind picked up and he felt a shiver go down his spine. He felt more than heard something behind him in one of the alleyways, but when he turned, there was nothing there but shadows in the early morning light. The uneasiness stayed with him as he continued to look for a way out of town.
Stanley whirled around, wondering where the sound came from. There was nothing moving except for a few dirty papers swirling around in a dust devil. He continued on his way, a little more hurried now.
Once again he turned, this time in a full circle, but saw nothing, no one. Uncertain, he looked over his shoulder-and when he faced front again, there was a man standing directly in front of him. Stanley jumped back, disoriented. He pressed his fingers to his face, willing the hallucination to go away. For it surely was not anything or anyone real, because the man was wearing a demon's mask, distorting his face into something unknown on Stanley's world. He removed his hands, certain that the illusion would be gone, but the man continued to exist. Stanley saw now that he had been mistaken. This was just a man like any other, one with a fanciful smile on his sun-reddened face. He wore bluejeans and a denim jacket festooned with pins of the type seen on TGIF waitresses. Somehow that smile made Stanley afraid.
"Stanley, my good man!" he bellowed, with almost a rabid good cheer. Stanley jumped again, overwhelmed by the loudness of the man's voice and the fact that somehow the man knew his name.
"Y-yes, tha-that's me," Stanley stammered. He stared at the man, unwilling to believe he'd found someone at last in this dead town, and it turned out to be someone who made him shake in his shoes.
"Of course it is, of course!" the man reached out to clap Stanley on the back and rest his arm on Stanley's shoulders. "My name is Randy Flagg, and I've been waiting for you to get here."
"You better believe it, Stan my man!" He reached out his other hand, offering it to Stanley to shake. He tilted his head to the right, getting close to Stanley's face, and asked, "It is OK to call you Stan, right?"
Not daring to say anything, Stanley nodded, and swallowing hard, shook Flagg's hand. It felt smooth and extremely hot, as though the man had a fever. He managed to take a shaky step backwards, out of the man's range. Flagg didn't seem to notice; he just straightened again and gave Stanley that strange, over-radiant smile.
"That's good, that's good, Stan my man, because I have something to offer you. I happen to know that there is an upcoming opening in my...organization. One that you could fill quite nicely."
Stanley didn't know why, but without thinking about it, he was sure that he didn't want to take Randy Flagg up on his offer. But he didn't want to say so. Somehow he knew that it would not be the right response. He tried to delay instead.
"What kind of organization, may I ask?"
"Oh, the kind that will bring you fame and fortune, my good man. The kind of organization that will take you places. Adventure! Romance! Danger! Things you've never dared to imagine during the last ten years." Flagg started walking down the road again, grabbing Stanley by the arm and pulling him along. "You'll be in a special position, Stan, with no one but Lloyd to answer to."
"I--" Stanley hesitated, not knowing what to say.
"No hesitation now--I can't stand for that sort of thing, you know."
Stanley stopped. He shrugged Flagg's arm off his shoulders. For once in my life, I'm going to stand my ground. He didn't know where he got the courage, but he turned to face this man whose face barely hid the monster behind it and told him without hesitation, "No."
"What? What's this you say?" Flagg's bright good humor seemed to fade for a moment, and Stanley could've sworn that he saw a flash of red within those bright blue eyes. That hint of fear returned, but Stanley knew that this was one time in his life he couldn't back down. He straightened himself up and looked Flagg in the eyes without trembling.
"I said no. I don't want to join you."
Flagg drew himself up, seeming to get taller. His eyes blazed as he pointed his finger at Stanley and roared at him, "No one tells me no!" He stepped back from Stanley and that awful grin returned. Stanley stood mesmerized as he saw light appear at the end of Flagg's finger, a small shining ball that seemed to be perched on the tip. "This is your last chance. Fame and glory? Millions bowing at your feet? Or a return to your nightmare of pain, stuck in the wheelchair forever?" As Stanley's eyebrows raised high in shock, Flagg continued: "Oh yes, I know all about the prison of your mind; all about those endless days and sleepless nights. Is that what you want to return to?"
Shocked, Stanley tried to answer, but all he could do was shake his head.
"Then come with me! I will give you all that you've ever dreamed of."
Stanley thought of his life; of the long days in the wheelchair with no one to talk to and nothing to do. He thought of how wonderful it felt to be on his own two feet again. He thought of the way Randy Flagg made him feel.
"No, I won't go with you. I choose to be my own man."
Flagg roared. The light on his finger grew brighter and larger. "Fine! You have made your decision! Go then, back to the life you deserve to live!"
Stanley stared at the light, transfixed, unable to turn away. He could think of nothing else but the flashing ball of electricity that filled his vision. It seemed to reach out for him and surround him, swirling and changing into sharp colors that hurt his eyes. He felt the same dizziness that had overcome him before...
...and he was sitting at his desk again, still holding the crystal ball, squinting from the light that bounced off the glass and into his eyes. He recoiled in his seat, overwhelmed by the sudden change. He was back in the room with the solemn pictures on the wall and the boring gray tiles on the floor--back in his wheelchair, legs useless again. He grabbed the gleaming ball with trembling hands. What happened? Could it have been real? He looked around his room in a daze. How could this be so? He shook his head, as if that would clear it of the haze that seemed to surround him.
He saw his copy of The Stand, still lying where he'd left it. He looked up at the bookshelf over his head. So many books. So many worlds. His eyes opened wide and his head jerked up as a phrase suddenly popped into his mind. There are other worlds than these. His heart started pounding again and his breath came in short gasps as he thought about what this could mean. This...this "Crystal Ball" that he held in his hands...could mean freedom.
He reached out to put it back on its stand, eager to reach for the phone to call Emily and have her come take books, scores of books off his shelves and bring them to him. His eyes on the phone, he missed the stand for the ball, and tried again...only to hit it sideways, knocking the crystal ball out of his hand. As if in slow motion he watched the ball roll to the edge of the desk and fall onto the marble tiles surrounding it. Stanley frantically tried to follow its path, using his hands to pull himself along by the desk, his chair rolling smoothly over the tiles. But before he could get there, there was a crash as his salvation shattered on the cold floor.
"No!" Stanley gaped at the pieces of glass on the marble tiles for a moment, unwilling to believe what he saw. In his mind, he thought for a moment he could hear the maniacal laughter of Flagg. He cradled his face in his hands and wept.
May 5, 2001
approx. 4300 words.
Blue awardicon given 05-12-08 for 1st Place - The Unofficial Fantasy Contest "The Unofficial Fantasy Contest (CLOSED)"
Given By: The Messenger
Second place winner of "Invalid Item" by A Guest Visitor .
One of my "Postcards from the Asylum"
With thanks & honor to Stephen King, the Dark Tower series, and The Stand.