As we walked through the tunnel, I started to notice little lights along the wall (snakes, they’re winding and twisting (hissssss), weaving and turning (hisssssss).) I wondered at what they might be (They’re coming for me (hisssssss). I can hear them). The (impossible) Child didn’t seem to notice; rather he continued on down the tunnel (What do you mean impossible?). Twas not long though before I realized that these were not little lights but (SNAKES, YOU DESERVE SN-) cracks in the tunnel.
“I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” I said, weary of a collapse in the tunnel.
“We have to keep going!” Said the Child, undaunted by the growing cracks in the wall. For they were indeed growing, and quite rapidly, too. Before my eyes the cracks doubled and tripled in length, connecting to form webs of light. I heard the sounds of dust and debris falling to the ground around us.
I wanted to run, but the child held tight to my hand.
“We’ll be okay,” He assured me.
It was a strangely comforting thing, those words. All the same, I jumped when a chunk of the ceiling collapsed a few feet from me. Light came pouring through, but I couldn’t tell where it came from; my eyes were not yet accustomed to anything apart from the dull basement lighting.
“Maybe we should hurry this little adventure up,” I suggested to the child, who shook his head in response.
“We can’t rush it here.” But all the same, the tunnel was falling apart around us and I moved ahead, trying to pull the child with me.
“Come on, we have to go!”
“No! We can’t rush it here! Everyone always says you can’t rush it here.”
“Rush it where? Where are we?”
I struggled with him, but he held fast, slowing me down.
Just as I was about to pull the child off his feet, a support beam fell down behind me, falling right where I would’ve been had I run ahead. It didn’t land though— the support beam, that is.
It stopped about two feet from the ground and hovered.
All of the debris from the collapsing tunnel had stopped falling, and now hung suspended in the air.
“Let’s go.” Said the child, pushing the floating beam out of the way with ease. It floated against the wall and bounced off, like it was in outer space, making a hollow sound as it knocked the tunnel wall. I followed hesitantly behind the child, pushing rocks and clumps of dirt out of the air as I went.
As we walked, the walls of the tunnel fell away, floating off into the light. The dirt floor of the tunnel soon turned to asphalt, and the light became a sun hanging in a pale blue sky, dotted with clouds. I had to shield my eyes from the glare as we walked up a parking lot to a little park behind a school. I turned my head to look for the tunnel, but all traces that it had ever existed were gone.
“How did…” To say that I was at a loss for words would be an understatement.
“Come on! We have to go before the teachers notice that we were gone!” The child stood at the edge of the park. I picked up the pace to a light jog as I came up on the child, and when I arrived at the edge where he stood, I saw that we were at an old schoolyard. All across the green grass, flocks of children ran about.
Grabbing my hand, he led me to a swing set, where an eclectic troupe of kids were hanging out, playing tag and laughing about existence. We took to the swings, where I sat with my legs bent at an awkward angle. Children’s swings are just that: swings built solely for a child. We sat there, swinging back and forth, and some of the other kids eventually came over and started to talk to us about things that were going on in school. When the Child I’d come with reached a respectable height in his swing, he let go and arced through the air. He landed and rolled, coming up smiling with his hands waving in the air. All the other kids applauded and cheered.
I felt a tear fall from my eye.
The Child came up to me.
“I- I don’t know…” I replied, truthfully. I had no idea why I felt so overwhelmed with emotion. This place felt so familiar, yet it was as if my mind wouldn’t allow me to remember it.
“Tell us a joke!” Said The Child. A few other kids gathered around at my feet, scooting closer so that they too could hear the Joke.
“A joke? I don’t know, it’s been such a long time since…” I trailed off because all the kids were laughing at something that I’d just said. Not in the mean way that kids will sometimes laugh, but as if I’d just told them a funny story.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Time!” exclaimed one of the kids, “Tell us another one, mister!”
“Time? What’s so funny about time?” I asked, though, while I was still terribly confused, part of me wanted to laugh at the word as well.
The kids all piped up, calling out answers to my question.
“Sometimes it stops!”
“One time it repeated? Remember, mister?”
We were all laughing now. I too began to think of all the things that Time did.
“Time, children, does a great many things. It runs, it jumps, it evens races. But you know the one thing that it does not do?”
The kids all stopped laughing, and scooted even closer, leaning their ears in to hear the secret.
“Time does not tic.”
Again we all laughed out loud. We laughed because it was horrible, because if we didn’t laugh we would cry. We laughed because if we thought too hard about it we would surely die.
Time is a joke I tell myself, because if it wasn’t, it would be the hell where I’ve trapped myself.
“Come on, I want to show you something.” Said the Child, once the laughter had abated.
He lead me across the playground and then— looking cautiously around to make sure the teachers weren’t looking— quickly dashed into the woods at the far end of the playground. I followed hurriedly not wanting to lose him, but also feeling that familiar feeling of exhilaration in escaping out from under the watchful eye of the teacher.
We passed through the trees, coming to a clearing littered with bits of trash. There were wrappers and old soda cans strewn around the ground. However, what the child had come for was lying upon a little stump, next to a lighter.
“Look!” The child held up a half-smoked cigarette, and putting it in his mouth, smiled confidently at me. I heard myself saying how cool it was.
Heard myself encouraging him.
He grabbed the lighter and held it up to the cigarette, about to light it.
Aren’t those bad for you? I heard myself saying, though it came unbidden by any will of my own.
“Sure, they might be,” Said the child, “But they’re fun.”
But won’t you not live as long?
“Maybe, but it’s not about how long you live,” He said, lighting (No, wait-) the lighter, “It’s about how much we enjoy living.”
He held the flame (hisssssss) to the end of the cigarette. That’s when the fear struck me. Years of regret and self-loathing came back in an instant as I remembered who the Child was.
“Stop!” I yelled as I lunged for the cigarette. But it was already too late, for my hand was met with the smoke as the Child stepped back from my grasp. The Child just smiled back at me, as more smoke began to surround us on all sides.
“Put it down! Please, just put it down!” I called out, almost in physical pain with anguish, “You don’t understand, you don’t-”
I tried to lunge for him, but as my hands made contact, he disappeared, his body becoming smoke (No No NO). I started coughing, and my eyes burned from the fumes that were consuming the forest’s oxygen around me. I could feel heat radiating from all sides, as if I were trapped inside an oven. There was a fire somewhere in these woods, but all I could think of was the child who had just disappeared into smoke. Then I heard my name.
Someone was calling my name. I could hear footsteps coming from somewhere in the smoke; someone was running toward me, calling out to me all the while.
“David! We have to go!”
Then I saw him. It was the child, but he was older now. Now he was a(live) teenager, maybe seventeen years old. He ran up to me and grabbed me by my suits lapels, pulling me close.
“We’ve got to go now, we’re going to be late.” (But I was already too late…)
Half-suffocated from the smoke, I could only nod my head and feel the wave of relief wash over me. The Adolescent pulled me along, through the smoke, with haste. Soon the dense clouds began to clear and the straw covered ground became concrete. We were running down a sidewalk in a bustling city, and he was dressed up in a button down shirt while I still had my dirty, soot-covered suit on.
“You’re okay, you’re okay…” I kept repeating under my breath as we ran. My mind was racing, but I was still too lightheaded from the smoke to form any concrete thoughts. Then it hit me.
“You’re alive! I can’t believe it, you’re alive!”
The Adolescent looked back as he dragged me through the crowded streets. He had long hair and a handsome face, unmarred by the usual acne that accompanies puberty.
“Hah, not for long if we don’t make it to the place in time.”
I looked around, startled. We seemed to be in a big city, one that looked a lot like the one I grew up by.
“What do you mean?” I asked, concerned, but in a weird way. It was the memory of concern mixed with a nervousness I couldn’t explain, “Where are we going?”
“It’s a small restaurant— you’ll like it. It sells that fish stuff you like,” He called back, weaving through a group of other youths.
“Yeah, that’s it. I tried some the other day, did I tell you? It doesn’t really matter, we need to get a move on.” He pulled out his phone and checked the time, “Damn, this is cutting it pretty close. They’re probably already there.”
“Who’s already there? What’s going on?” I couldn’t quite grasp what was going— what were we doing running through these streets? It all seemed vaguely recognizable, a distant memory, yet I couldn’t quite figure out why.
“Oh don’t tell me you already forgot their names?” He said with a laugh.
I was at a loss for words.
“Jamie and Helen, yeah? Jamie’s yours, if you’ve forgotten that too.”
“What are you…”
The Adolescent stopped in front of a glass door.
“Here we are.” The glass was tinted, so I couldn’t see the inside, but it looked like a nice restaurant. I felt something flutter in my stomach. It took me a moment to realize that I was feeling increasingly nervous.
“I’m nervous. Why am I nervous right now?”
The Adolescent threw his head back and laughed, “You’ll be fine. Everyone gets nervous. She already thinks you’re cute, though, so this will all be smooth sailing.”
I nodded, feeling reassured. Then I remembered the Child in the woods with the cigarette, and the old regret flooded back. I looked at this Adolescent, and waves of other images started to come back. There was a high school, and there were other friends. There were late nights in the attic watching movies and playing games. There were summers at the beach and long days at the pool. Then there were the dark days at the end of high school. At the end of it all, though, there was a coffin.
“Wait! I have to tell you something,” I said, grabbing hold of the Adolescent by his shoulders, “It’s really important, I just-”
“I know,” He said, smiling at me as if he really knew what was to come. He grabbed hold of my arms, “You’re going to be okay.”
Then he opened the door and pushed me inside.
“I’ll be right in behind you.”