01 Feb The Portal in the Forest (Part 2)
After carefully applying my thumb to the red glass surface to leave several natural smudges, I carefully pressed the panel into the metal frame I’d devised. Once the transparent crimson rectangle was firmly in place, I tapped the center.
That one did it: the glass cracked right up the middle, offsetting each half by a barely perceptible degree. It was a very slight malformation, but that was the point. I attached the framed glass to a metal rod and positioned it just so… measuring the placement of the nearby mirror and camera, I made sure everything was in place.
I stepped out of the room and closed the door behind me. The string attached to the door pulled the covering away, revealing my object of study only once I’d left the room.
A lanky and bespectacled boy of about thirteen stood in the next room, clearly surprised to see me. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” I asked back, glancing around at the empty and dust-filled chambers of the abandoned house I’d slipped into.
“Is this your house?” he asked.
“Absolutely not. That wouldn’t be safe at all.” I moved to a single rickety table I’d salvaged as a place to put my laptop and reader device. I gave the system one more run-through before I turned on the camera in the next room.
He stepped a little closer, looking at my laptop screen from afar. “What’s that?”
“It’s a journal I found in another universe,” I replied, carefully directing the makeshift page-turner I’d created. “But I suspect it’s a cognitive hazard. I dropped it, but then still had it with me later. I even brought it back here to our world… very stupid move.”
He gave a small nervous laugh. “You’re weird.” He took one step closer. “Why’s it red like that?”
“Don’t read it directly,” I warned him. “The book is in the next room. I’ve reflected its image off of a mirror, through a smudged and offset spectrum filter, into a camera, which sends the image to this computer upside down… remember, it’s backwards, too, because of the mirror, so what we see here has many obfuscations and errors to protect our minds. Finally, I built a custom OCR program to translate the malformed text to this device.”
Eyes wide, he came fully forward and touched the rather battered device directly. “What’s it do?”
“It’s a Braille reader.”
He laughed for real this time. “That’s an awful lot to read some book, right?”
“You can never be too safe. I suggest you tell the other kids in the neighborhood about this technique, given their habit of stealing things from other universes.”
He took a step back. “I don’t really talk to the other kids much…”
“But you’ve been through that portal in the woods?”
“Can you tell me anything about it?” I asked, running my hands along the Braille reader as I did so.
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Even through all the safeguards, errors, and translation into Braille – which was normally the holy grail of hazard filters – the book was insane gibberish. I’d first seen it as a journal filled with diary-like musings and random doodles… it was only pure luck that I hadn’t read anything but the last entry. That account had made sense of the empty world I’d visited, and its apocalypse by hungry darkness entity. Had that part of the book been fake, too? What, then, had killed everyone?
But I’d seen the half-disintegrated corpses. That much, at least, had to have been true. Had the unknown girl who’d written those things somehow added to the end of the book without realizing what it was? Or had it acquired cognitohazardous properties after she was already dead?
“The portal was just there one day,” the boy explained. “I was walking and ran into a bunch of younger and older kids throwing things into it. Guys dared each other, sure, but nobody was that stupid. We threw stuff into it, even made a big rope and let a stray dog run around in there. It seemed safe after awhile. Only thing, though. It goes somewhere new every morning. We don’t know what would happen if we were still inside at night.”
So, it was as I’d suspected.
Holding a box, my eyes closed, I crept into the next room and closed the cardboard flaps around the book. I only opened my eyes once it was safely sealed within.
“Is it safe now?” the boy asked.
“As safe as it can be, with barebones tools,” I told him, heading for the front door with the box under my arm. “Well, are you coming along?”
He was, apparently. He followed maybe ten or twenty feet behind me as I headed through the old Dodson lot and back into the old-growth forests beyond the last row of suburban houses. The Blue Ridge Mountains towered on the horizon as I crested the abrupt hill just shy of the portal. For a moment, I could see above the treescape, and I scanned the distance out of habit – but noticed nothing anomalous.
Several children, ranging from young to upper teens, sat around the portal. They all froze as I approached, clearly fearing that their secret had finally been discovered by the adults, but I ignored their apprehension. “What do we have today?”
The oldest boy, probably seventeen or eighteen years of age, stood slowly. “It’s a bad one.” Instinctively responding to my implicit authority, he waited.
I peered through the vast oval rift.
This time, the portal had opened into an area too small to contain it. Before me, I saw three spaces: a gloom-filled and empty restaurant, a rain-filled alley filled with strewn trash, and the back section of some sort of office – also dark and empty. The sky, visible only above the alley in the middle portion, sat opaque and stormy. The entire scene was eerily quiet, and I realized that sound did not travel back through the rift. “What’s so bad about this one?”
“Wait for it.”
I did wait. A moment later, lightning flickered quietly, revealing the terrible secret of this new world. “I see.” I looked down at the box under my arm. This thing needed to go before it had a chance to do… whatever it was capable of. I began running through scenarios in my head, judging the likelihood of an active threat this long after every human on that planet had died horribly.
A moment later, I stepped through the rift.
I looked back and saw the forest and the assorted kids. Their images ran hazy from the rain pouring down the front of the portal. It wasn’t lost on me: matter and energy native to this world seemed to have a passive inability to cross to ours.
Staying close to the alley wall to dodge the worst of the rain, I stepped gingerly over the places the lightning had shown me to avoid. I paused once I reached the street, and peered both directions for a few moments.
Another flash of lightning struck, this time followed by tremendous thunder that shook my very bones. Under this second round of flashing, I saw them again: corpses, strewn all about the alley and street. Huddled masses had fled this direction and been cut down without mercy. Tragic enough, certainly, but odd for another reason… their rotting remains were invisible when not under direct illumination.
I crept into the restaurant with a pounding heart. An ancient and decayed smell filled the humid gloom. I moved through an empty dining area and searched through several cabinets in the back until I found a flashlight. Knocking and turning it until it finally came on, I shined the light around.
Under the beam of my flashlight, almost every seat in the empty dining area held a corpse, either hunched or yawning depending on the direction it had fallen. I had only managed to avoid touching them by sheer luck. Little twisting blackened strings of fungus and rot were all that remained on their plates, a fitting feast for the dead.
Almost every position had been served a plate of delicacies now long past identifiable. I chose a chair that had not been served and carefully placed my box down. The box had grown warm the moment I’d entered this world, and I was curious.
Scooting the cardboard aside, I laid the book out on the table and flipped it open from the back to avoid any hazardous contents in the front. I sought only the last entry, which I knew from experience to be reasonably safe to read. I’d had a suspicion that its contents would be different here… and I was right.
I was on a date at my favorite restaurant. I was even having a good time. I… don’t know what happened… she and I ran into Jen. Now, she’d never liked Jen, but she put on a good face for the conversation. If I hadn’t been so oblivious, I would have guessed she didn’t really want to change our plans and go to that stupid party with Jen.
I’ve never really liked parties. Not really. I always get self-conscious, and my brain gets all tired trying to keep up with all the things I keep imagining other people are thinking or saying or expecting. Pretty soon, I always just want to go home. I can’t go home, though, because I need a good excuse to leave… a believable one, so that people won’t secretly judge me.
I got my excuse, I guess, when Jen died.
I wasn’t sure what happened. Nobody was sure. She was always a party girl – had she overdosed? She was bleeding pretty profusely from the nose, and she’d fallen and gotten terrible slashes up her back… but she’d been locked in the bathroom, and nobody had found her until it was too late.
My date insisted we leave when the commotion started, and I agreed wholeheartedly. On the way out, I heard a very odd cry: “She’s gone – her body’s gone!” – but I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
On the walk home, I apologized profusely, but she just seemed scared. Two blocks down, we saw a group of people huddled around another body.
It was then that I felt something chill and sharp move by me – but I turned, and saw nothing. I had the inexplicable sense that I was very close to something large and menacing, but the night-darkened street seemed normal, save for the worried people calling emergency services.
Another few blocks down, my date and I stood under a streetlight and waited for the bus.
We decided to keep moving when a homeless man on the other side of the road seemed to fall rather roughly. Blood splattered up as if he’d… but it didn’t make sense… why were all these people having terrible accidents?
Just after we kept walking, I looked back, and – for a split second – I thought I saw something moving toward us. It was a mere blink against the streetlight we’d just abandoned, and it was gone almost immediately, but I quietly insisted we walk a little faster.
Four police cars surged past us, lights afire and sirens blazing. In the rotating red and blue, I thought I could make out a weird blur behind us on the sidewalk, but my eyes just couldn’t make sense of it.
I looked up from the book. The boy I’d talked to earlier had followed me. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“You’re here,” he replied, standing by the door and peering out into the storm.
I shrugged. As long as he didn’t come further in, he wouldn’t risk running into the rotting bodies dotting the restaurant. How far behind me had he been? Did he know about them?
I looked down to find that the story had skipped part of the narrative. There was a small gap where I’d stopped reading, and no text in between. Odd… but, then again, this wasn’t just a book, and these weren’t just written words…
She slammed the door behind us just as something bashed angrily on the other side. “What the hell is going on?” she screamed.
I helped her force it shut, and I locked it with a relieved sigh. “I have no idea, but we can hole up here until… until the police do something.” The door to my apartment was solid and sturdy, containing a heavy sheet of metal as a form of security most campus houses shared. I had no windows on the first floor; instead, stairs went straight up to my apartment on the second floor. Never was I more thankful for my cramped brick-and-metal entryway.
Dashing upstairs and closing and locking the door to the stairwell, we took refuge in my bedroom and turned on my small television.
Static. There was only static.
Our cellphones didn’t work, either, and the Internet was out…
It was then we really started to think we were screwed.
Deciding to turn off the lights so as to avoid drawing attention to our location, we sat and peered out the windows into the night.
Clouds covered the moon. Trees swayed in chilly autumn winds. Nothing living seemed to move…
“There!” she whispered, pointing down the street.
I saw nothing.
“It was under the streetlight for just a second…” she said, trembling as she clung to my arm.
I had to confess, despite the terrible things happening, part of me was still happy… “Wait, I saw something under a streetlight, too. And when the cops passed, and the lights -“
The lights. Something had brushed past me in the dark, and something had pounded on our door just as we’d gotten inside… but I had no porch light.
Intently, I stared at the closest streetlight until it happened.
Something horrible and twisted shambled past, visible only under the strongest part of the streetlight’s glow. It was gone almost as soon as I realized I was really seeing something.
“Do you smell that?” my date asked, almost at the same time that I realized we’d made a terrible mistake in turning off all the lights.
In the very dim orange glow from the streetlights outside, I noticed a dark stain on the carpet near my roommate’s bed. What if one of those things had already gotten inside here before we arrived? I jumped up and flipped all the lights on, illuminating each room in the apartment with a heart-freezing moment of terror.
The last light, the one in the kitchen, finally revealed it. It’d been on the other side of the apartment from us, and we’d stayed quiet, but… now it knew we were there. It came for me with a demonic and wholly inhuman grin.
I shouted, ran for the front door, and pulled my date through as she came to meet me. I knew what these things were, now, and I knew we were doomed… but I still managed to grab the emergency flashlight from the front staircase.
We burst forth from the heavy door, shoving the creature there aside, and I hesitated only long enough to shine my flashlight at it and get a good look.
I’d guessed right.
We took off running into the night, but screams were already ringing out from multiple nearby streets. We could seek shelter, seek food, seek safety, but… from the horrors I’d seen, I knew there was nowhere to hide.
That, and it wasn’t cloudy at all. From out here, we could better see the reflected glow from the city’s lights. There was no Moon, not because of clouds, but because something massive was blocking out the entire sky. The dim twinkles I’d mistaken for stars were in fact the city’s own light reflected from some sort of massive structure arching over us from horizon to horizon. Not a ship, not a building… it seemed more like… a leg…
But none of that mattered, after what I already knew. I didn’t have the heart to tell my date as we picked a basement to huddle in, but we’d seen the creature pursuing us before.
It had followed us from the party.
It was – or had been – Jen.
Twisted, bloody, and visible only in direct light… but it was her, no doubt, without any trace of humanity left within.
I looked up as the implications of that statement sank in. “Hey kid,” I whispered, as quietly as I could. “What’s your name?”
“Thomas…” he whispered back, emulating me out of worry. “What’s up?”
“We really have to go, and… you can’t make a sound…”
I stood slowly, shaking my head. I couldn’t tell him that we were sitting in a room full of invisible corpses that were anything but dead. Ever so slowly, I stepped between the tables, heading for the front door.
Creaks echoed around me as unseen joints began snapping, cracking, and… moving.
Although I could see he was terrified, Thomas knew better than to make any noise. I listened carefully to the movement around me: were they simply reacting, or were they certain of my presence? I took one quiet step at a time until I saw chairs began to move back as their unseen occupants stood.
I broke into a run, and I pointed toward the door. Thomas wasted no time in rushing out and into the rain, but he almost immediately tripped on invisible rotted piles of flesh. Picking him up, I waited, heart threatening to thump out of my chest, until the next flash of lightning revealed a path forward.
He saw the bodies strewn about – he saw that they were starting to move and awaken – but I grabbed his mouth and kept him from screaming. Now that he knew, I used my flashlight, shining it hurriedly around us to – shit!
The beam shined across a moving circle of decayed flesh; hundreds of unseen corpses approached through the streets, like ghosts in the rain. I shined the flashlight ahead, illuminating our path, and we splashed through heavy puddles and leapt over clawing rotten hands.
Pushing down the alleyway as the rain intensified, we ran back through the portal at full speed.
Pausing in the safety of the forest to catch my breath, I turned and looked back.
The alley sat clear and empty… until a flash of lightning illuminated an endless legion of living corpses, all standing still and gazing at us. They made no move to enter the rift, but that didn’t make me feel any better. Beyond them, up in the sky… I’d made the same mistake as the doomed man and his date. Those weren’t clouds – just the reflection of other parts of the sky on vast metal, impossibly high chrome, and it began moving as we watched…
The children all around screamed and flinched as a silent but tremendous impact on the other side threw mountains of rubble across the portal. Moments later, it was buried, and showed only onto the impenetrable blackness of layers of rock and dirt. We, however, remained perfectly safe. Only the other side of the portal had been buried, and I was certain it would simply open on a new destination the next day without interruption.
“Are you alright?” the oldest boy asked me.
“That was so cool!” the other kids exclaimed, gathering around Thomas. “What did you see over there?”
Enjoying the attention, he began smiling and telling them exactly what had happened. There was no need for embellishment.
“I’m fine,” I told my lone listener, shaking water out of my hair. I looked down as I did so. “Goddamnit…”
Without realizing it, I’d brought the book back again. Had it been in my hand through the whole escape?
I set my jaw. I’d try again tomorrow.