The Circle

The boy from our world and the man from his own crossed the blood-orange grasses stretching to the horizon of an ochre sky. The man made his way slow, searching, solemn, his feet aching with the steps of a thousand days. The boy’s feet were sore too, but he hardly felt them; he registered only the wisps of brilliant light in that orange sky, spinning a kaleidoscopic waltz in a million, million shades: every color he’d ever seen, and many he had not.

The man glanced back. The boy had stopped, eyes wide, mouth wider. “You’ll catch a gillflyer, slackjawing like that,” the old man warned. Then, reconsidering: “Might get a good meal of it, you stand there much longer.”

The boy’s eyes dropped from the wonders overhead. “A gill — what?” His navy sweatervest, pressed white shirt — already yellowing in the alien dust and sweat — and mirror-bright shoes made it clear: this was not his world. He might have come from church, or prep school, or some social function where his presence had been mandated, but not from the door between the worlds… and certainly not the wildwood it opened on.

“A gill…” the boy’s guide — his one chance at going home — trailed off. “Neveryoumind. Just keep it moving.”

“But… the sky!” the boy pointed, “It’s…”

“It’s the sky,” he growled, resuming his march, “Does what it wants, when it wants. Damned thing.”

“Does what…” The boy believed his ears as little as his eyes. “How can you say that? It’s beautiful!”

The man stopped. His back remained to the child, but his head tilted up.

The firmament was the living, livid painting of a mad painter-god: arcs of color darting and swimming about each other, all laws of complement and contrast abandoned in a beatific harmony all its own. There was no sky like it, anywhere in the world — or any world, for that matter.

“You get used to it.” The boy saw his ancient shoulders rise and fall beneath his faded shirt.

○ ○ ○

West, and a little north — if the boy was right to assume this sun followed the same path as his — lay their course, between the door from his world to the door back: Enddoor, his guide called it. They chased the swollen, crimson orb wheeling overhead, man and boy drenched in sweat by midday. One was too young — too privileged — to have crossed many miles on foot; the other had crossed so many they’d long ago ceased to hurt, then ceased to be enjoyable, then resumed hurting again.

You get used to it, he thought to no one but himself.

The day’s journey ended long after both wanted it to. The land was violent red, the grasses bleeding in the strange sun’s last hurrah as the yellowed sky shimmered to orange. The pair spotted a grove of ashen trees rimming an ancient, long dry well. The man had hoped for water, but it would serve all the same.

As he set their first camp, the boy looked for signs of the well’s makers — a house, a wall, the town it must have fed — and found nothing. If anyone else had scraped out a life in this barren, empty world, they’d long gone to dust.

Disappointed, the boy turned back. His guide had settled back against a corpse-like trunk and was — unbelievably — snoring. The sun hung low in the sky behind his sleeping form. The boy stared at his companion, before remembering his warning about slackjaw and shutting his mouth.

He remembered a visit to his grandparents, long ago and in another world; the putrid, sterile smell of the nursing home, the clockwork simulacrum of life the nurses enforced, and Gammie and Gampie, drooling into their nightgowns in the TV lounge well before 7. He’d wondered how old people always fell asleep so early.

He turned his gaze to the view he would — apparently — grow accustomed to. The sky deepened; the aurora — if that’s what it had been — had vanished long ago. The boy could see no stars, but the heavens were growing less alien — the familiar ink of night beginning to rub away at the turmeric haze.

Something moved in the corner of his vision. He looked down; a second, pale shadow was stretching out from his sneakers. The boy spun round, to see if some kind of moon was rising.

He was half-blind a moment later.

It it was small enough to be a moon. Where the first sun had been a titan of bloody fire, the star which leapt from the mountains above the wildwood was a cold dwarf: pale blue and bright enough to keep even the elderly awake. The sky lost its ever-more familiar dark as algal green splashed across the dust-choked air.

The boy covered his eyes. Black-white sputtered — popped — in his eyes. He rubbed at them — against his mother’s near-forgotten advice — and the apparitions vanished. His mom had always told him not to do that… and for the first time, he worried he’d never see her again.

When he opened his eyes, his ancient, ghostly guide (ancient to a 12 year old, at least), had risen, crackling, from his nap. He yawned, blinking a clear-eyed welcome to the boy and the renewed day before asking:

“Ready?”

The boy’d heard of power naps, but he’d only have been asleep for… five minutes? Maybe six? He hesitated. “Are you?” the child from our world asked.

His answer was a laugh, and another roll of his tired shoulders. He hadn’t asked himself that question in a long time: ready or no, rested or no, there was a sun in the sky. “You get used to it,” he smirked.

○ ○ ○

The boy was unsure which part he’d get used to as he ran to catch up with him: another sun rising on the heels of the first, or the usually sleepless pattern which resulted. Whichever his guide had meant, he soon adapted to both.

The following sunset/sunrise, the dwarf star didn’t follow the same straightaway course, and the next day, she changed again. Secondsun was fickle — that was how his guide described her. Sometimes she chased her sister, casting long, then short, then long shadows with the hours. Sometimes she was shy, barely seen above the horizon as she circled about them. And sometimes — very rarely, but sometimes — she glimmered at the world’s edge, took one look at the land she was about to cross, and thought better of it. Only then would they be granted night’s comforting darkness; a void devoid of moon and stars, or even those fireworks which sparkled in the doubled days.

Come night — which fell once or twice a week — both travelers collapsed like the dead men they felt and didn’t rise ’til Firstsun. The boy was unsure how long it lasted: whenever that ruddy glow began poking at his eyelids, he felt he’d slept for eons, but once he sat up, he found he was still tired. The boy was young, though. The old man smiled, remembering a time when he could’ve endured such changes.

On his first true night, terror had kept him awake: twitching at every imagined sound, staring into the utter black — a night without streetlights, billboards, or spotlights spilling light into the clouds. Just stillness, and the never-ending dark. It was like staring into space, knowing it went on forever, and feeling yourself beginning to fall.

His guide — desperate for sleep himself — remained awake, listening to his panicked breathing. Just as he decided he’d never be able to sleep without the comfort of electric lights, the man spoke up.

“You get used to it.”

○ ○ ○

By the watch still clinging to his wrist, two week of realtime (the boy’s name for the numbers ticking away on the display) had passed before he really began to shrivel. The dark no longer kept him awake, but the cold did: biting through his sweater as both it and he grew more and more ragged. His guide fed him whatever he could: roots and grains and bitter berries collected before they left the wildwood; thankfully, none had been noxious — so far. But the boy was making miles of leagues, and he hadn’t been large to begin with. He needed meat — in his stomach, on his bones — if they were to reach the Enddoor.

This rang like a chorus in the old man’s mind as he watched the rabbit in the hollow below grooming its ears — all four of them. He shook his hand at the wrist, gauging the weight of the stone in his palm.

The boy hadn’t eaten in days, but he came close to vomiting when the man drew a ragged mass of blood and fur from his belt and began peeling its skin away with a sharpened flint. For an instant, he didn’t see his guide, but his father. standing in their kitchen, peeling a tangerine in much the same way. The thought turned his stomach further.

The old man paused his surgery at the sound of gagging. His mouth formed a grim line. Life, here and in the boy’s world, was killing to eat, eating to kill… and the boy knew only eating. For a moment, he felt — shame? Regret? It didn’t have a name. He’d exposed innocence to a horrible, necessary truth — the circle of death which feeds life — and he hated himself for it. But still…

“You get used to it.”

He set the hare over the crackling fire. The boy forgot his sickness soon as fat began to fall, hissing and spiting, onto the logs. It smelled like bacon.

○ ○ ○

By then, they’d crossed the prairies reaching from the border of the wildwoods to the foothills of this world’s mountains. These, they’d seen three days before they reached them: peaks of volcanic glass, sprouting black and brilliant from the flatland like molars tearing straight through the soft gums of the earth — or whatever this place was called.

Staring up at the monoliths, again forgetting the dangers of slackjack, the boy asked his guide if this world — empty of life, except for the birds and the rabbits and himself — had a name. It did, he said: he’d found it once, carved into something, somewhere, far away and long ago. He couldn’t remember when he’d forgotten it. You get used to that after a while, he’d said: forgetting things.

The boy took to calling it the Closet.

○ ○ ○

As the juices of his first real meal this side of the door — the best he’d ever had, in his opinion — dribbled down his chin, the boy recalled the sickening lurch in the pit of his stomach as the edge of those mountains had chipped away beneath his soles, sending shards of black tumbling into the mists of the far, far below.

It was two days before they’d reach that mountain meadow and the feast which waited there. This was the only path through the mountains, his guide assured him: the only way to Enddoor. In a way, the boy was glad; if there’d been any other — stupid or dangerous as it might be — he’d have taken it in a heartbeat.

Ping! Obsidian off obsidian bounded over the rumble of water far below — impossibly far, impossibly loud. The boy tried to look away, but couldn’t; there was no way they’d climbed that high. The pale haze veiled any bottom it might have had. He’d been too scared to look at his watch, but it seemed the rock had taken ten full seconds to fall. He stared, mind numbing, into the darkness below.

Something seized his vest, dragging him back. The fabric pulled against his neck, straining at the seam as he fell back against the mountainside. He turned to the bearer of the offending hand, but his guide did not release his grip. He’d watched as, lightheaded from hunger and the impossibility of what he saw, the boy had tottered at the edge.

The boy’s breathing was hard… rattling, even, the man realized. He worried if he’d bruised the protruding ribs of his young charge in saving him.

The anger in his eyes faded — replaced with something else. “That was…” It was all the stick-figure in a faded sweater could get out. He gulped — cast another, more cautious look over the edge — then: “How deep is it?”

The old man shrugged. “Deep enough to kill you,” was all he said. He released his grip — not too quickly — and turned himself around on the slippery ledge.

“How can you not know anything!?” the boy blurted. The man stopped — reigned back by the accusation. Anger, he expected from the child. Confusion, yes. But… resentment?

“How can you not care about that?”

The boy gestured to the canyons dropping beneath their feet like open graves. Even yelling, his voice was muffled by the tumult coursing below. There was a beauty here, the old man — or some forgotten part of him — realized. But that wasn’t what the child referred to.

The man set his teeth and kept moving along the time-worn path winding into the distance. Always, he kept moving . “You get used to it,” he growled.

His words were lost beneath the thunder of the cataracts.

○ ○ ○

Enddoor: they reached it two weeks after.

The boy’s clothes were threadbare and ragged. He could count the vertebrae in his back as he shifted in his sleep. But he was alive. His guide seemed worn and twice as aged as he had before. They’d struggled through forest, mountain, thirst, hunger, and fear, but… they’d made it. Endoor. Enddoor. Enddoor.

It stood alone; no creeping woods encircled this portal. The door itself was ordinary as the first: plank and nail and round, brass knob — no keyhole. It was a door which could easily lead to any ordinary closet in the boy’s world. Around it, though…

The frame looked a living thing, sprouting from the dry dead dust beneath it. It’s sides were trunks of elm, branched above to form a square and vanishing below in a tangle of roots. It’d seemed less strange in the wildwood, where trees had flown up in every direction around the first door; here, it’d planted itself in the endless glare of the final desert, a hateful thing at the end of the world.

At least, the old man claimed it was the end. If the boy squinted hard enough against the light of Firstsun, he imagined he saw some black mass hulking on the horizon… another set of mountains? Clouds? Either way, he hardly noticed; once the door appeared over the last of the obsidian steps, he was running — practically sprinting — down the hill.

Chips of glass thick and heavy as shards of shale slipped away beneath his shredded trainers. His guide might have worried he’d fall and cut himself to ribbons, if he didn’t know better. He was certain the boy would make it — certain as he knew how little he mattered once that dark doorway appeared before him.

It’d be unfair to think the child cared nothing for him. He’d saved him countless times; fed him, comforted him, taught him all he could… but he didn’t love him. The boy did not love him either — something about it just felt wrong.

The young traveler watched his guide descending, shifting his feet in front of the door home and shooting it sidelong glances. More than anything, he wanted — needed — to bolt through, run straight to his mother, embrace her, kiss her, beg her forgiveness… then maybe eat every scrap of food in the pantry. But he couldn’t leave yet — not without saying goodbye. It’d be impolite.

The man of this world was ages threading his way down. The boy’s nervous shuffling quickened; sweat beaded on the old man’s scalp as it furrowed. If he could slow this moment’s arrival by sheer force of will, then time itself would’ve crawled to a stop.

He had to tell the boy. He’d sworn to tell the boy, sworn it as soon as he saw him in the wildwood and understood it all. But all those long weeks, he’d found himself unable to reveal the truth… the horrible, necessary truth.

And when he finally reached the Enddoor — the boy’s hand clasping his own in an oddly stiff farewell — he found himself unable to say anything at all. His mouth was stopped, numb and dry.  It wasn’t just the desert; a fire to match Firstsun was burning in his head.

He felt him shaking his boneless hand, listened to him saying something to the tune of “see ya,” and watched him grasping the brass doorknob, pulling it back, and disappearing into the field of light.

And just as the door at world’s end slammed closed — the door where his world had ended, all those years ago — he managed to croak, though parched and ancient lips:

“You don’t get used to this. Trust me. You never do.”

○ ○ ○

The way was shut.

The old man could try, with what might he had left, to pull the door loose from its living frame, but he knew it wouldn’t budge — knew it as he knew Secondsun followed First, knew desert followed mountain followed prairie followed forest, and knew, wherever the boy might be… he was not home.

He’d made the trip to Enddoor twice: once young, searching, desperate, and alone; once old, knowing, and in very, very familiar company. He’d stepped through it after twenty hungry years spent searching trackless wastes for a way out, a way home… but he’d never stepped past it. Yet he was not surprised to see the sigil scraped into its wide back: a circle. The circle.

Hell is empty, and all the demons are here.

He didn’t know which circle he was damned to, but he knew he was in one: his own personal level of Satan’s hell, the only demon left his younger self, too blind and stupid to keep away from that closet door. Moments after he’d passed through Enddoor and found himself twenty years back in the clearing of the Wildwood, he’d understood: life was not a circle of killing and eating… it was a cruel joke.

As the door swung open behind him and the boy appeared, dazed and blinking, the look in his eyes was unbearable: it was his own shadow, greeting him as a stranger.

The boy from our world — as he still managed to think himself, on a good day — put Enddoor to his back. He refused to look at it longer than needed.

Even if this wasn’t hell, he was still trapped within a circle: a loop which, once closed, was inescapable. But time had run backwards and changed once: he’d made the journey alone last time. Perhaps it would change again. Perhaps his young doppelganger would guide another version of himself — this one only a few week younger — across the blood-red fields to Enddoor. Perhaps he’d tell himself the truth at last. Perhaps, together, they could find a way home.

Or perhaps he wouldn’t. Perhaps he’d see himself across the meadow, realize the truth, and sit down to die in the shade of the wildwood. He’d been tempted before… and on the endless white-hot sands of the final desert, that didn’t sound too bad.

But he… he’d go on. There was nothing else for it. He’d gone on for years alone, and on again once hope had failed. He couldn’t stop now. His eyes strained westward — if he was still right to assume Firstsun followed the path as his own, near-forgotten sun. Darkness lingered: mountain or forest or void, he could not tell. Somewhere beyond it…

Maybe there was another door. Maybe he could find a way back, to a mother who would never recognize him. Maybe he could break the circle.

With a prayer to whatever god had made a place like this, he pushed off against the burning sand.

○ ○ ○


2 thoughts on “The Circle

  1. Great story, Trev! Loved the twist at the end. Very Twilight Zone’ish. Thank you for the gift of story telling.

    Like

    1. Thank ye kindly! I wasn’t thinking Twilight Zone when I wrote it… but now I am. Definitely need to rewatch some of that.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s