They say you can never go home again...maybe you just shouldn't.
|The First Threshold: Home Again, Home Again
The cave had been a fixture of the local geography for thousands of years, the pamphlet read. The residence, however, discovered only two months ago, was estimated to have been constructed as recently as nine years ago. 1986.
That was what drew me back to Portland. I don't know why, I don't know what it was about it that made me want to be there. Maybe because the estimated year of construction just happened to be the same year that I left, giving up my life there, both physically and symbolically. Leaving it all behind. 1986.
Of course, I still had the evidence of it. Scars on my arms. The occasional imaginary bug. Just to make sure I remembered. 1986.
Maybe it was because I was in that very same cave, very likely months, weeks, maybe even days before it was built. That cave was the last place I found myself in, face down in the mud, no memory of how I got there, when I decided that was the last straw, and packed up and left. 1986.
I don't know why, but somehow I felt like that cave had some connection to me. Like it was important that I go and visit it. But so far I hadn't had the guts. I just picked up a pamphlet and read about it. The cave was thousands of years old, but the residence was only about nine years old. 1986.
Apparently, it was constructed as a bomb shelter, in the fear brought on by the cold war, by the man who owned the property. But something went wrong. He got locked in, there was no air. Trapped. Suffocating. And he was there for nine years until some kid, playing hide and seek, found the wall.
The man who built it was retired, hardly ever left his home, and had no family. For nine years, nobody noticed he was gone, down in some bomb shelter in a cave. And now it's a tourist attraction. Just like a house, people say. A living room, kitchen, bedroom, everything you can imagine and more. Fully furnished, carpeted and everything. I sat there, at a table, drinking coffee and staring idly at the pamphlet, not really reading it, lost in my own thought, when a voice interrupted my reverie.
"Holy shit!" The voice cried, as I cringed, "holy, sacred shit! Is that Johnny? Is that my motherfucker?!" I looked up as a figure slumped down across the table from me.
"Hey, Manny," I said, "it's been a while."
"A while?" He grinned, "'a while,' he says...it's been like a hundred thousand fuckin' years, man! Where have you been, you just, like, vanished!"
"Been gone," I muttered, "I just...had to leave."
"Yeah, well you didn't say goodbye or nothin, man! That was like...shit, what year was that...'91?"
"'86." I said, "same year that bomb shelter is supposed to have been made."
"'86, yeah, yeah, that's, like...eight years ago."
"Nine years, Manny. This is 1995."
"'95? Shit...I need to renew the tags on my license plate." He gave a brainless giggle and sniffed. "Well..." he began, "...the good news is that I forgive you...I forgive you for high-tailing it without so much as a goodbye to me, Manny the Man, your BEST friend...I forgive you. And the other good news is that modern science has made many achievements, particularly in terms of our choice of recreation, and the other OTHER good news is that you have come back just in time to rekindle our friendship via the peace pipe, kemosabe!"
"Actually..." I sighed, "...that's kinda the reason I left, Manny. I'm done with that." Manny's grin disappeared and the look that he gave me was slightly disappointment, but mostly in his eyes I saw despair.
"You may be done with it," he said, "but it ain't never done with you, brother. We're all prisoners of our own device. Shit, man, it's like the song says, you can check out any time you like, but you ain't never fuckin leaving, you dig?"
"That's not how the song goes."
"Yeah, well, what the fuck do I know from the fuckin' Eagles? The point is...it never goes away. You know that. It never lets go. I say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If the devil won't let go, hold on and dance. If you start it, you're in for the long haul. Buy the ticket, take the ride." He pulled a small baggy out of his pocket and placed it on the table. He had a point, of course. Even now, after nine years, I couldn't take my eyes off the little baggy on the table. I forced my eyes back up to his.
"Maybe later, Manny." I said.
"Yeah, sure, whatever. Later." He took the baggy, pocketed it again, then stood up and walked away.
I continued staring at the pamphlet as I nursed my coffee. Decaf. Nothing addictive in it. Why did I come back here? What was this place? Who were these people? Why was that bomb shelter built the very same year I left? And why did I have the feeling that I had to go there? I finished my coffee, paid for it, and left.
I walked along the streets for a while. It was four in the morning. I couldn't sleep. For most of my life, I couldn't sleep. The cave tours started at six. I walked the streets of downtown for a couple hours, thinking about my encounter with Manny. I had expected it to be difficult. I hadn't expected it to affect me for this long.
I didn't intend to run into any other old friends, whoever was still alive. As soon as I was done in the cave, I was leaving again. I started making my way toward the section of town where the cave was at, nestled back in some woods.
There aren't many wooded areas of Portland, but being Oregon, there were more than most other American cities its size. There were signs, and neon tape leading through the forest to where the cave was. Tourists were going to and fro through the pathways.
Nobody else seemed to notice it, but to me, the pathways seemed to lead into the gaping maw of some ancient beast. Like a giant dragon. And here I was running right toward it, instead of away like any sensible person would. I chuckled a silent, humorless laugh in my throat at the thought. All these years, and still chasing the dragon.
I took a deep breath and followed the pathway. At the end of the path was a small kiosk set up with a rat-like man behind it, swallowed up by the T-shirts and coffee mugs and mouse pads and fold-out fans and various other esoteric merchandise bearing the obnoxious brand, "THE PORTLAND CAVE" in bold letters. Merchandise that few people would buy, and those people would never use.
Next to the kiosk was the cave itself. If the forest was some great medieval dragon's mouth, the cave would be the entrance to the inner depths of the dragon's digestive system. I could puzzle for a million years, and never think of a legitimate reason why a person would have the desire to delve into the innards of a dragon, but somehow it just kept pulling me closer, closer.
I paid the twenty dollars to the tour guide, and followed the crowd as we penetrated deep into the cave. I couldn't help but feel the sense that I had just paid twenty dollars to voluntarily take a small trip to Hell.
The Second Threshold: In the Belly of the Beast
"Good morning, I'm your tour guide, Virgil...now, some things about the cave that may interest you..."
The tour guide wasn't a very scholarly person. He was about five years younger than me, and regurgitated the information from the pamphlet. The cave was thousands of years old, but the residence was only nine years old. 1986.
The man who built it was a retired man. No family, no friends, never left his home. So when he disappeared in 1986, nobody noticed except the creditors.
Looking around, I couldn't help but wonder how an old man could manage to build such a sophisticated residence in a cave. Apparently, that was part of the allure of the place. The unsolved mystery aspect of the story.
I stopped listening to the tour guide and just looked around, following all the rest. It was a rather complex structure. Several rooms, some seemed rather pointless. It was gloomy and claustrophobic, and the lights that the old man had placed in there nine years ago didn't work, so the people running the tours strung work lights through the tour paths. They didn't put them in the rooms that you passed by for viewing, so when you looked in at the various rooms, the lights cast long shadows reaching back into the depths of the room.
We passed by one room, made up into a bedroom, and at the very back of the room was a doorway. Just an opening in the wall, the size of any ordinary door. Beyond the door was darkness, black as pitch. I couldn't take my eyes off of it. I stood there, staring, as the rest of the tour group moved on.
I moved into the room, following the shadows, which seemed to point right to the door. I moved in further, deeper, until I reached the doorway. But when I reached out my hand, I discovered that it wasn't an opening at all. My hand touched nothing but black bricks.
"Sir," a voice spoke behind me. I turned around. It was the tour guide. "You aren't allowed in the rooms. There are a lot of unstable parts of the cave, and for your safety, we need you to stay on the path." I looked back at the bricked-up opening, then back to the tour guide.
"Of course," I said, "sorry." I rejoined the group. But before I left the brick wall, I could swear I heard music playing from somewhere behind it. I shook it off and rejoined the group.
The tour guide just kept repeating the information from the pamphlet, moving through one room after another. We finally came to a lit-up room, an office, rather sparsely furnished, with a desk and a neat rug. At the back of this room was a single, green door.
This door had an even stronger draw on me than the last one. It took everything in me to stop from running to it and throwing it open. A movement at the bottom of the door caught my eye, and I looked down to see what it was.
The floor seemed to be moving, rolling, but after another look, I realized it was thousands of bugs spilling out from under the door. Earwigs. Thousands of them. I closed my eyes tight. I was used to this. I opened my eyes again, and they were still there, coming closer now.
A woman in the tour group screamed, and I realized that I wasn't the only one seeing them. That was both a good and bad sign. The good side was that I wasn't hallucinating. The bad side was that there really were thousands of earwigs racing across the floor toward the group.
The tour guide was calming everybody, reassuring them that we were underground, it was nothing unusual, and earwigs are not dangerous. But my attention was taken back to the door, which now seemed to itself be moving, shaking, the doorknob jiggling.
Everybody else seemed to notice this as well, including the tour guide, who was feebly trying to explain it, talking about drafts coming up from the inner depths of the cave, but even his voice was shaking. Everybody was scared, panicking, but I could only stare at the door.
This had never happened to anybody else. Somehow I knew that. There was something behind the green door, and it wanted me. It wanted me, and I wanted to go through the door.
I shouldn't have wanted that. I should have been as scared as the rest. But all I could do was stare as it shook more violently, and I could hear the music again, definitely music. I could make out words this time:
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I wanted to go through that door. And whatever was on the other side wanted me to. I wasn't scared. Even when the doorknob turned, and the panicked voices around me got worse, I didn't move.
Even when a woman frantically shouted a prayer, I didn't move. Even when the door quite suddenly, quite violently flung open with a BANG, I didn't move.
Even when the rest of the tour group, including the guide, turned tail and ran away out of the cave, and the music got louder and I could clearly make out the voice of Johnny Cash, I didn't move.
Even though the door was wide open and there was music coming from nowhere, and beyond the door was inky black darkness, I didn't move.
I wasn't scared. I should have been. I should have been terrified. I should have run. But whatever was there, whatever wanted me in there, was not going to give up until I walked through that door. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
I felt my feet move involuntarily toward the door, my eyes transfixed on the darkness. With every step I could hear the music get louder.
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine, I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
My eyes fixed, the music growing louder and louder, I walked, without even thinking about it, ever closer to the open door and to the blackness beyond. Finally I was at the doorway. Even standing right at the door, looking through it, I could see nothing but darkness, blackness, and I could hear nothing but
as sure as night is dark and day is light, I keep you on my mind both day and night...
I knew that once I took my next step, I will have crossed a line, and there was no going back. I should have been scared. I wasn't. I should have run. I didn't.
All I could think about was the last time I had found myself in this cave. Nine years ago. 1986.
The darkness was all-encompassing. Black and oppressive. But strangely inviting. The music grew louder, more insistent. I took a deep breath, and stepped over the threshold.
The Third Threshold: Inner Torment
I stepped through the green door, and blackness washed over me. I could feel a solid surface beneath my feet, so I knew there was a floor, but I could see nothing. I couldn't see my hand in front of my face, I couldn't see the end of my nose. And I didn't see the door suddenly slam shut behind me, but I heard it, and I heard the music cut off just as suddenly, and I just stood there, in the darkness and the silence. As dark and as silent as the grave. The only thing I could hear was my own breath, and my own heartbeat. I didn't want to move, because I didn't know what any step would hold.
I suddenly had a thought, and reached into my pocket, pulling out the Zippo lighter that once belonged to my father, before he killed himself. I always carried it with me, as a good luck charm, and just to prove that I didn't need it. But I needed it now. I opened the top and flicked it on. The flamed leaped up and a soft, muted light washed over the room.
The room I was in was carpeted. Across from the door I came in was another door. A recliner sat across from a television set which was attached to an old top-loading VCR. Aside from that, the room was empty. Empty of things that could be seen, anyway.
All of a sudden a breeze, as cold as arctic ice, blew through the room, and extinguished the flame on my lighter. My heart jumped, but not as much as it did when the television set suddenly came to life, bathing the room in that electric-blue light given off by a TV. I made my way around to where I could see the TV. On the screen was just static, but then an image flickered to life. My period of being unafraid was over. I was afraid. But still my curiosity outweighed my fear, and I watched the image play out on the screen.
The camera was pointed, very closely, at a table top, but I could tell it was a well-lit room, and I could hear the voices of several people. I heard hissing sounds, and realized that it was a person, sniffing. The camera lifted up again, and I could see the people around the room. I realized with horror what the scene was, and whose eyes I was seeing through.
There was a couch, and on one end of the couch was Manny. In the middle was my girlfriend of the time, Janet. At the other end of the couch was an old friend of mine, Gabe. I realized that the "camera" was my own eyes. I was watching my memory of a day, eleven years ago. Unfortunately, I couldn't enjoy the amusement of everybody's clothes and hair, because I knew what was coming next.
"Your brother is a lightweight, man." Manny said onscreen, looking over the back of the couch, "he's completely out."
"No," I whispered to the TV, "please, no." But even as I said it, my voice piped up onscreen.
"I told him to take it easy." I said, "let him sleep it off, he'll be fine."
"I'm gonna dickface him!" Gabe laughed. He and Janet, giggling, leaped over the back of the couch, Gabe grabbing a felt pen. A long, sick silence followed. I stood in the dark room, watching the television set, somehow incapable of looking away. I sunk to my knees as I heard a sound like light slapping, and I heard Janet's voice cry out.
"Duke?" She called, "Duke, wake up buddy! Johnny, his lips are blue!"
"Shit!" I heard my voice cry, and I watched, through my eyes, eleven years ago, as I ran behind the couch and knelt down beside him. I don't know why I needed to see it on the TV. I hadn't forgotten one moment of this night for the past eleven years. No matter how many things I did to erase the memory. But when I saw the face of my little brother Duke on the screen, I realized that mere memory was nothing. I saw his face, gray and ashen. His cheeks were sunken in and his lips were blue. No memory compares to seeing it right in front of you. I felt sick, and I felt a knot grow in my throat.
"He's cold, Johnny," Gabe said, as I inspected his face.
"Somebody get me a mirror!" I heard my voice say.
"Here's one," Manny said, "but it's kinda scratched up from the razor..."
"It'll work," I said. I held the mirror down to Duke's mouth and nose. "Do you guys know how to check his pulse?"
"I do," Janet said. Nothing appeared on the mirror. There was another silence, and Janet said, "I don't feel anything, Johnny." At that point, the focus was on my hands on Duke's chest, pressing down, one, two, three, four, five, then Duke's face close up. I was trying to perform CPR. Meanwhile, my voice was crying out.
"Come on, Duke! Come on, buddy!!" I heard the voices of the others arguing as I focused on my task.
"I'm gonna call 911," Gabe's voice said.
"Are you insane?!" Manny's voice yelled, "do you know how much of this shit we have around here?! Jesus, an ounce of any of this would land us in prison!"
"We need to get Duke to a hospital, Manny!" Janet's voice yelled.
"Fuck you! It sounds like he's already dead anyway, I'm not going to get raped by some fucking white supremacist for ten years because the kid couldn't hold his shit!" I didn't remember any of this argument from that night. I must have been too focused on what I was doing.
"I cannot believe you just said that, Manny!" Janet shouted, "that is fucking sick, even for you!!"
"Shut the fuck up, bitch! It wasn't my idea to bring him, and it wasn't my idea to get him fucked up, so don't talk to me like it's my fault!"
"I didn't say it's anybody's fault, but you could at least have some compassion, it's Johnny's little brother, for crissake!"
"You guys!" Gabe shouted, "while you two are kickin each other in the balls, that kid's gonna die! Manny, Duke has to go to the hospital!"
"Fine!" Manny shouted, "if you assholes wanna go to prison, be my guest, but wait till I get the fuck out of here, and DO NOT mention my name! I swear to christ, if any of you fuckers mention my name I WILL kill you."
"Don't worry," Janet sneered, "we won't tell anybody what a selfish, insensitive dickhead you are."
"Fuck you, I'm gone." I heard the door slam. On screen, I was still pressing on his chest, one, two, three, four, five, breathe, one, two, three, four, five, breathe.
"Wayne Bradley Jenkins, you wake the fuck up, RIGHT NOW!" My voice yelled. I heard tears in my voice. That was when I realized I had tears streaming down my face for real. I didn't need to see the rest. I knew what happened. As much of an asshole as he had been, Manny was right. He was dead before we even found him like that. And he was right about something else. It was my idea to bring Duke along. It was my idea to get him involved. It was all my fault.
The image onscreen changed suddenly. It was Duke's funeral. The preacher talked about how those that are taken so young are that much more important, that God needs them that much sooner. I heard a voice mutter "God didn't do this." The screen panned to my father, on my right. He glanced over at me, then looked away. The image cut to us walking away from the funeral.
"Dad?" I called, after his back, in front of me. He didn't even slow down. "Dad? Please talk to me." He walked to the car, got in, slammed the door, and locked it. I stood next to the door. After a minute, the window rolled down.
"Be late coming home." Was all he said. He stared straight ahead as he said it. He would not look at me. Frustrated and angry at his response, I snapped back at him.
"Fine," I said, "fuck you, too."
He drove away. The image onscreen changed. I had just got home. There was an ambulance and police car in front of the house. In the real world, watching the television set, I shook my head.
"No more," I whispered, "please...stop." It didn't stop. I could see myself running to the front door and going in. A cop tried stopping me, but I broke away, and ran to my father's side. My father was lying on the floor, in a large puddle of blood. He had put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. My throat was aching, tears streaming down my face.
Again, the image changed. I was beating Janet. She had been hugging Gabe, to console each other after what happened. But I was strung out and paranoid, and thought she was fooling around. The screen flashed to Manny behind the glass of a prison visiting area. Gabe had mentioned his name to the police. When the cops came to Manny's house, he shot two of the cops, then went to Gabe's house and shot him twice in the head. Image after image flashed across the screen. My mother crying, my hand slapping her. I cringed. The streets and alleys where I lived for two months. I had no more tears left.
"WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?!" I screamed to the empty room. I was shocked to hear a response.
"You did it." I spun around. Sitting on the recliner, looking exactly the way he did the night he died, was my little brother. Wayne Bradley Jenkins. Duke. My father named me John and named my brother Wayne. You can see where he got the nickname Duke. Duke sat in the recliner. Not transparent. He looked completely solid, like I could touch him. His eyes and cheeks were sunken in. His face was gray and ashen, and his lips were blue. His eyes had a white glaze over them.
"Duke..." I said, "I'm so sorry..."
"It's all because of you, Johnny." He said. He didn't turn his head or move. The only movement was his eyes and his mouth. "One thing leads to the next."
"I know...I know that. But...I've changed. I don't do it anymore."
"You shouldn't have come back."
"This cave...it means something."
"It means pain, and misery. It means nothing that you should be a part of."
"I had to know what it means."
"Knowing won't fix anything."
"How can I fix it?"
"You can't. The tape can only record, it can't be erased. It's too late now. It's too late for me, it's too late for you...and it's too late for a happy ending."
"What do you mean?"
"Goodbye, Johnny." The television set suddenly went dark, and with it, Duke vanished. I was still on my knees. Everything I had just seen flew through my head, and I put my face in my hands and cried. For several minutes, all I could hear was the sound of my crying. Then another sound cut through the darkness. It started out soft, but gradually rose above my sobs until I could make out words:
At my door the leaves are fallin...the cold, wild wind will come...
I raised my head, and underneath the door at the rear of the room, a yellow light had appeared.
...sweethearts walk by together...and I still miss someone...
I stood up. There was no going back now.
The Fourth Threshold: Deep Secrets
I stood and walked to the door. The light had now grown to surround the door, a halo of yellow-white light that seemed to pulse along with the music.
Though I never got over those blue eyes...I see them everywhere...
I reached my hand out. It hovered, shaking, over the knob for a moment. Finally, I grabbed the doorknob, turned, and pulled the door open. Light hit me in the face, and I instinctively closed my eyes against the brightness. After a moment, the room came into focus. The music was gone. I walked in the room and closed the door.
On one side of the room was a bed with a dinosaur comforter. On the other side was a dresser with dinosaur toys covering it. The walls were covered with, you guessed it, dinosaur posters. It gave every indication of being the bedroom of a little boy. It actually looked very familiar to me. I shook my head...after all, all little boys' rooms look the same. I was not surprised to find yet another door in the wall opposite the door I had walked through.
It made no sense to me. The man who built the shelter was an old man, retired, with no family. Why would he build a room for a little boy?
I heard a humming sound, and whipped my head around. Sitting on the floor near the corner was a boy. He had sandy blonde hair and was very intent on what he was doing. In his right hand he held a tyrannosaurus, in his left hand was a brontosaurus. The tyrannosaurus was trying to attack the brontosaurus, saying "raaahhh, I'm gonna get you!" The brontosaurus was running away, saying "no, Toni, leave me alone!" The boy stopped suddenly, then his eyes rolled up to meet mine. He raised his head and smiled.
"Hi!" He said. I knelt down next to him.
"Hi there," I said, "what's your name?" Even though I knew this situation was impossible, and I should have been very uneasy, somehow I felt very comfortable with this little boy.
"My name is...Jake." He said, looking back down at his dinosaurs. The tyrannosaurus roared again. I smiled.
"uh-huh, my daddy calls me Big Jake."
"Well, you look like a Big Jake to me, too, so I'll call you that. So how did you get here, Big Jake?"
"I'm dead." He said it very matter-of-fact. A chill went down my spine.
"You are?" He nodded in that very big way that little boys nod. "How did you die?" I asked.
"I was poisoned." The tyrannosaurus had caught the brontosaurus and was apparently eating him.
"Who poisoned you?" I asked.
"Toni...did Toni build this place?" I asked. I had remembered something about the old man who built the shelter being named Toni Dadic.
"Yeah. Toni is mean. He takes people. He makes them do bad, mean things. And then he poisons them."
"What do you mean, he takes people?"
"He goes inside them. In their body, and in their brain, and he takes them over."
"He possesses them?"
"Uh-huh..." I suddenly felt fear for being in this cave. If what Jake said was true, the old man who built the shelter was not an old man at all, but some kind of demon. A monster. Jake held up the tyrannosaurus, "his name is Toni, too." I looked down at the brontosaurus lying on its side. Dead, in Jake's imagination.
"What's his name?" I asked, indicating the brontosaurus. Jake looked up at me with big, blue eyes.
My stomach dropped into my feet. My breath came in short, hard bursts. I was hyperventilating. I suddenly stood up and backed away in a sort of stumble, knocking into the dresser covered with dinosaur toys. Suddenly, behind one of the doors, music began blaring, oppressively.
An old cowboy went ridin out one dark and windy day...
I looked at the door, then looked down at Jake. His blue eyes had gone wide with fear and his mouth had pressed into a tight, fearful frown. There were tears in his eyes.
"He's here!" Jake cried. I shot a look back at the door, filled with fear. I looked back to where Jake had been. He was gone.
The Fifth Threshold: Hunt
I ran to the door that did NOT have music coming from it. I cursed myself for having walked right into what was obviously a trap. This...creature, this monster, this demon, Toni Dadic, had set his sights on me to be his next victim, and I ran right to him. Well not anymore. I flung open the door, and walked in.
This was not the door that I came through to get into Jake's room. My eyes adjusted to the dark. This room seemed to be completely empty. There was a door set in each of the four walls. I didn't hear the music anymore. That was a good thing. That was my thought, until I saw a figure standing in the corner. A bolt of fear went through me.
"Who's there?" I asked.
"You should never have come back." I recognized the voice.
"You should have stayed away, Johnny." His voice was monotone. I was grateful that I couldn't see him.
"I know," I said, "I know that now. How do I get out?"
"He built this whole thing. It changes to whatever he wants it to be."
"'He'? You mean Toni Dadic, don't you?"
"It is whatever he wants it to be."
"How do I get out, Dad?!"
"I don't know if you can. You've followed him too far. He's coming!" Just as he said that, the music started again:
When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw...
My heart stopped.
"He's getting stronger..." Dad said, "...faster..."
"Dad, which door do I take?!"
"...He'll be here soon..."
"DAD?!" I screamed, "WHICH DOOR?!" Through the darkness, I saw his head dart toward one of the doors. I looked toward the door, and looked back to him. He was gone. The music was getting louder,
I plowed through the door and slammed it behind me, and looked around for something to barricade it with. There was a table and chairs set up in this room. I grabbed one of the chairs and propped it against the door. I turned into the room, and my heart jumped. Somebody was sitting in one of the chairs.
"That won't stop him."
"Gabe?" The light suddenly came on. I was blinded for a second. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw Gabe sitting at the table. He had a hole in his forehead and in his cheek. Otherwise, he looked exactly the way he did on the television. Behind him in the wall was another door.
"That won't stop him. He's stronger than you. He's stronger than the door, and the chair. He won't stop."
"Gabe, I need to know how to get out! Help me, please!"
"Why did you come back, Johnny?"
My eyes filled with tears.
"I don't know!" I shouted. "I'm weak and stupid, ok?! Is that what you all want to hear?! Now help me get out!!!"
"I used to love the feeling of a breeze..."
I collapsed to my knees in front of him. Tears were now streaming down my face.
"I'm sorry, Gabe! I am sorry! God, I am so sorry! Please...please help me find my way out."
"There is only one way out of this room." He turned around and looked at the door behind him. "I hope it works, Johnny. Good luck, my friend. You'll need it." I heard the music pipe up behind me:
If you wanna save your soul from Hell a-ridin on our range...then Cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride...tryin to catch the Devils herd...across these endless skies.
I shot a look at the door, barricaded by the chair, as it shook. I looked back to Gabe, and he was gone. I raced to the door behind where he sat and ran through it. Empty room. One other door. I threw it open and raced through it, slamming it shut. I turned around.
The room was bright. There was a couch and a coffee table. And sitting at the couch was Duke, Dad, and Gabe. Jake was sitting on Dad's lap. Everybody was looking at me. It felt like an intervention. An intervention filled with dead people. They all looked completely healthy and whole, just like they did when they were alive.
"You guys," I began, "you have to help me get out of here. Please, you have to help."
"It changes into what he wants it to be," Dad said.
"He won't stop." Gabe said.
"He takes people, makes them do bad things, then he poisons them." Jake said.
"There is only one way to get out." Duke said.
"How?! How do I get out?!!" I asked frantically. Jake placed his dinosaur toys on the coffee table. He showed the brontosaurus stomping on the tyrannosaurus. I realized. "The only way out..." I began, "is to beat him." They all looked directly at me. Looking into me. Looking through me. I knew. The only way I could get out is to stop him. One way or another, he and I would meet tonight.
"Where is he?" I asked. All four of them lifted their hands and pointed to a bright red door. Almost as if on cue, music began pouring out the door:
I fell into a burning ring of fire...I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher.
I stood, looking at the door. Then I looked back at them. I was not surprised to find them gone.
And it burns, burns, burns...the ring of fire...the ring of fire.
Fearful but determined, I stepped to the door. I put my hand on the doorknob. It felt hot, but not painful. I turned the knob and opened the door. There was darkness beyond. I stepped through the door.
The Final Threshold: Face Off
I stepped into the darkness and shut the door. The music stopped. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized with a shock that this was the television room. For a moment I thought it was impossible, but I remembered what Dad said. He built it. It changes to whatever he wants it to be. Someone was sitting in the recliner.
"Toni Dadic?" I said.
"Bingo." A voice replied. It sounded young, and there was a touch of familiarity to it.
"You don't sound like an old man."
"I'm thousands of years old. I've had millions of different faces, different forms. I've taken millions of people. You think you can beat me?"
"If I can't, then I'm gone. If I do nothing, then I'm gone. If I run, you'll catch me."
"That does seem to be the case."
"You won't take me."
"I already have."
"I know who...and what...you really are."
"You only think you do. Do you really know about me? Do you really know about yourself? Do you even really know where you are?"
"What are you talking about?" I asked. The figure pointed at the television. Puzzled, I looked at it. It came on quite suddenly. The image onscreen confused me. I saw white, sterile walls, and bright white lights. I was lying down. Somebody appeared on the screen, looking at me. It was my mother. At first I thought she was dead, but she wasn't. Just old and tired. Her cheeks were sunken, her hair was graying, and she had bags under her eyes. She spoke to me.
"Why did you come back, Johnny?" She said, tearful. "Why didn't you stay away?" I was confused.
"I don't remember this," I said.
"Remember?" Toni said behind me. He chuckled. "Johnny...this isn't recorded. This is a live broadcast."
"You mean..." I said.
"That's right," he replied.
"This is happening...right now?" I said. I turned around to look at him. His face was young, like his voice. He looked sick and unhealthy. He was pale and pasty. His hair was long and stringy. He had dark circles under his eyes. But otherwise, he looked exactly like me. The floor seemed to fall out from under me, and I collapsed to my knees. It all suddenly hit me...Jake's bedroom was identical to mine when I was nine years old. Big Jake was my fathers nickname for me when I was little. The living room where they all sat was a carbon-copy of the room in the video when Duke died.
"I've had you since you were fourteen years old, Johnny. You thought you got rid of me nine years ago. You thought you could run away from me. But I haven't been gone. I've been here. You thought you left me in a cave, and you did. But the cave wasn't where you thought it was. It was here...inside you. And if I can't go to you, I'll bring you to me. You thought you could get rid of me, run away from me, but you can't. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." The television set switched off suddenly. Darkness swallowed me up.
"Is there any chance of him coming out of it?" Dawn Jenkins asked the doctor, standing over the catatonic form of her son lying on a hospital bed.
"It's hard to tell, Mrs. Jenkins," the doctor replied, "he is in an advanced vegetative state. He could snap out of it tomorrow, or he could never come out of it. It's all a matter of time." The doctor took notice of a tattoo on Johnny’s thigh, “what’s with 1986?”
“It’s the year he left…the year he went clean.”
“I know what that’s like. I can tell you the exact date, to the day of the week, that I quit drinking.” Dawn wasn’t paying attention, the doctor spoke to her, “that was quite a relapse he had, huh?”
Dawn looked into her son's blue eyes, which were open but empty.
"Why did you come back, Johnny?" She said, tearfully, "Why didn't you stay away?"
She and the doctor walked out of the room and turned off the light. Several hours later, a male nurse walked into the room to check him. Around his neck were a pair of headphones attached to a portable CD player. He had the headphones around his neck and not on his ears. It was turned up loud enough that he could hear it clearly despite the placement of the headphones. A deep, gravelly voice was coming out of the headphones, singing:
Love...is a burning thing...and it makes a fiery ring...bound by wild desire...I fell into a ring of fire.