Deep within the South, past the Civil War Memorials of the sight-seeing tours and far below the hills so remote and distant that a man would only dare to live there, a strange and forgotten field existed. There was a magic to it, one that kept it hidden from any normal trespasser. It was no protective ward or secretive shroud, nor was it in fact an incantation by any man. Even as the shadow lingered quietly over this field, the Earth below it howled for it was the Earth that cast it. A shameful veil it was, one meant to hide the plain and everything in it, everything that had transpired that had made it so poisonous. As it was below the hills it was a pit, as it was far beyond the reach of man it was a wasteland, and as it welcomed not but the most lost of souls it was a Hell.
And so wandered Samuel into this place. A hitchhiker without a hitch, he shambled as a husk does down the interstate highway, a body absent of a soul in any profound amount. In him though a spark of humanity lived on, proven extant to the world outside his mind by his dry grumbling of words.
"Water..." He begged.
Since Spring he had drifted, but by several weeks ago the winter had frozen the streams for the most part and now the season had sealed them off entirely. As the highway turned from road to wind tunnel it became too much for Samuel. He blindly pushed for the sloped thicket off the side of the road, the wind so powerful he instinctively shut his eyes and hoped for the best. His feet did not guide him well though, and with no more than two steps into the snowed-over dirt, Samuel fell. It was a surprisingly kind fall, ironically enough, for he gravitated immediately towards a path clear of trees and sharper rocks, bumping and bruising against the smoothed stones as if to indicate that the path was once a river some million years ago. So far was the fall, Samuel felt as if he would lift off and careen into the depths of a canyon if he didn’t know the geography better.
The South, the True South, where Samuel was born and lived, where he made sure to stay even as he wandered, consciously or not. In the back of his mind a superstition danced, one that developed like a child develops an imaginary friend, but all the darker. It seemed to him growing up that the hills and meadows of land were never quite still, that when untouched by man they would move and grow and shrink in accordance to some unknown and alien will. Perhaps playful, as Samuel liked to imagine it as a child, perhaps completely random, but in his days drifting Samuel sensed it stirring, as he wandered deeper into unsettled lands. That which used to be a lively heartbeat had turned itself into a deathly silence, a sinister silence that one hides and plots and schemes behind. And no concept was more forwards in Samuel’s mind than this as he reached the bottom of the impossibly deep valley.
It was fairly underwhelming to him at first. Here he was expecting some ethereal hotbed to the mysticism of the land and all he saw on looking up was a plain. Dense overcast not withstanding there was nothing overt in its presence or nature to make it register as anything more significant than the bottom of the hill to Samuel. But then he began to notice things. He picked himself, running his fingers through a patch of yellowed grass to see it distinctly lacking in the snow that had blanketed the land, with “lacking” in this context meaning “complete absence”. Samuel struck himself as rather thick for a moment, until he lighted upon a meaning to the landscape that took priority over this thought:
“No snow? That’s not possible…Where…where am I?”
“The same question, as always…!”
A voice called from nearby and Samuel whipped about to face it. His eyes went back and forth and all around him looking for its source before landing on a young lady, standing right where he was facing before. She was not much to look at, or at least not much that impressed Samuel; blonde hair in a pony tail that neither sparkled nor flowed, eyes not so deep as to inspire poetry, and an assortment of mate-attracting features (legs, ass, breasts) that severely lacked both deformity or refinement. It was this he would look at and judge a woman’s worth by, and were he in any other situation he might simply move on by the girl. She spoke as if to address this quality in Samuel,
“Have you had a thought yet? Or are you still waiting for something obvious to happen? For the world to think for you?”
Samuel resented such a condescending tone,
“Hey, shut up little girl! I just need to know how to get back onto the road.”
She walked about Samuel as if floating like a fairy, examining his form as if she had some great insight into him that he could not perceive. After a pause she said,
“I think you need to know a lot more than that. You may ask… One question.”
“Alright, tell me how to get back to the road.”
She smiled. She was pressing his buttons, Samuel could tell, she knew exactly which question he would ask and exactly what answer to give him to annoy him. He knew dealing with her would be difficult from this alone, but he also knew that he was completely lost and might soon be in the dark, wherever he was, and so continued questioning,
“What? Where am I then? Is there any town nearby?”
The smile widened, so facetious and Cheshire, and still she floated and spun around Samuel playfully. She said,
“You already used your question there, boy. I can give you a hint though…”
“Lady, if you don’t tell me the truth, I swear…”
At this she laughed, but it was a fake laugh, a loud, artificial taunting laugh that slammed against the ears. And as her tone shifted from playful to a cold, bitter mumbled, the laugh made her look all the more mad. The wind stilled as she spoke,
“There is a saying though, that the only way out is through. That’s your hint. No more hints, no more questions… And there is no truth here, Samuel.”
She knew his name. As soon as she spoke it, spoke the impossible in speaking the name of a man she had never met, she was off. And as soon as she was off, Samuel bolted after her.
“Hey, come back!”
Her speed was unreal. Samuel ran as fast as he could and he still felt like he was slowly losing space to her, as if his legs were falling asleep on him no matter how much effort he exerted. It became abruptly clear, like an idea suddenly realized that there in the field swept a great wind. In a surreal silence the half-dead grass trembled from the breeze, strong enough to force Samuel back but completely harmless to the girl ahead of him. Samuel had a subconscious fear of the wind, for he knew it was always the wind that had the final say in his destination during his travels. No matter how adamant he was in his own plans, Samuel could be easily pushed in the complete opposite direction if this force of nature were great enough.
It was not wind that made him tumble downwards though. He did that himself with a little outside help. Samuel had tripped and fallen when the power of the wind had blinded him with its sharp drafts. By the time he looked up the girl had gone, seemingly disappearing to whatever ether she had materialized from as there was no sign of her on the entire flat of the field. Samuel looked down to examine what he had tripped on as it had caused a great pain to shoot through him, such that he could swear he broke his foot. It was a metal box, which while logical in relation to the pain, seemed as nonsensical as the girl and the wind did in relation to the field. But just as Samuel found a sinister meaning in the shape of the hills, and was met with a meaning in the direction of the wind, he had a gut feeling, a compelling intuition that this metal box was important.
He had determined this before he had even lifted it up to examine it. It was buried into the ground, but not in a pit as a pirate’s plunder might be. The depression was just barely big enough for the box to fit in, as if it was pressed into the earth instead of submerged by the conventional method. On finally retrieving it from the grasp of the field Samuel was somewhat underwhelmed. It was one foot long and half that wide with a faded grey hue, like unpolished silver stained by dirt but not quite rusted. Most of the soil had collected in a crease near the top, along the crack the box opened up with. Samuel tried immediately, but found it locked by key and no nearby way of splitting the thing open. Even after evaluating every dimension of it, he still pondered it for a time; clearing off the dirt, looking for cracks, running his fingers across every crack and over every dent, something about the object appealed to him. Then suddenly an idea came upon him that seemed so painfully obvious.
He tapped the side of it.
Something tapped back.
Samuel might have come to his senses and run straight away had he found this box buried anywhere else, but in this field that seemed to speak to him with its anomalies and impossibilities, he was transfixed. He certainly jumped back in no small amount of jump-scare, but within a second he was back upon the box. Samuel picked it up, definite that he had to open it.
“Found your box, have you?”
The voice came from behind, the same voice as before. Samuel whipped around and snapped at the girl,
He bit his tongue to stop himself the moment he saw her though, as she had practically transformed, though was clearly the same girl. She was a vision to behold; her hair that had once been flat, colorless and pulled tightly behind her head was now flowing down to her waist, vibrantly golden and waving in the wind like many a coppery wheat field Samuel had passed in his drifting. Her face and body had become art and sculpture accentuating one another as the glow of her blush and the luminescence of her skin met upon the shades of her rather buxom dress; an evening gown of muted red tone with a split to show off the right leg. Samuel instantly, reflexively backtracked on everything he had felt before.
“S-sorry lady, I uh… It’s just, I found it, it’s mine…”
She smiled again that same smile. If at first Samuel doubted his ability to hate this trickster woman, now his worries were dispelled with this smile.
“Oh I know. It was there when I got here, which means it’s at least…hours old, I guess. Still has a lock, does it?”
“…Yeah,” Samuel said carefully.
She weaved inwards towards Samuel, more to watch him squirm as she drew closer to the box than to actually examine it. She circled around him and said into his ear, in a low, seductive voice,
“I know how to open it.”
Samuel perked up, excited by this. Like a dog begging for food, panting as his heart fluttered at the girl’s words and looks. She hastened her pace as she circled him, always outrunning Samuel’s vision, practically making him spin in place. She said,
“I will tell you if you allow me one question, as I did you…”
“Fine, sure,” Samuel said.
She stopped in place,
“What is it about it that intrigues you so much?”
Samuel hesitated. He felt an answer on the tip of his tongue, but it hung suspended in his mind. Like dust illuminated by sunlight, there was motion and presence but no substance, no tangibility. But that was it he realized. The feeling could not be put into words because the thing that intrigued Samuel was the fact that it could not be put into
words. Samuel tried to relate this,
“It is something special, it’s something strange, it’s…”
The girl spoke,
“…It’s intriguing because it’s intriguing?”
“Well…it’s intriguing because something this special has to have a purpose, right? Like it’s meant for me; this place, you, this metal box, all of it is so out of place, it has to have been set up, designed, constructed… Meant for me.”
“Why? If it’s all so magical, is there something magical about you?”
“…I don’t know. Maybe. There are things wrong with me, things I’m sure you don’t know…
I’ve always thought there was something odd about me, maybe this is finally it. Maybe I’m here because of whatever magic makes this place so special.”
The girl smiled again, but it was no Cheshire cat smile like before, it was instead warm and sweet. Shoulders relaxed, eyes squinted and ears perked, the girl-next-door smile, the smile that men worked eight hours a day for. She raised a finger and pointed behind Samuel,
“There, in that shack you will find a locksmith. An old woman who hasn’t had visitors in ages; she will open the box for you.”
Samuel turned and saw it, about a hundred yards away from him and as inexplicably present as every other thing he had encountered here. When he turned back to the woman to thank her, the smile had gone. Her face was a deathly expression and Samuel dared not cross it even to thank her. Without another word she turned and left and a slight chill shook down into Samuel’s spine as the distance silently widened. He called after her,
“Hey, I never got your name!”
But without the slightest acknowledgement of him, she continued on. Samuel shrugged and went in the opposite direction, towards the shack.
Though the ground of the field had some semblance of once supporting life, the nearer Samuel got to the shack the more this changed. At first the dirt got dryer and the already yellowing grass loosened and tumbled away lifelessly at the slightest shifting of Samuel’s weight. Next the wind, that same wind which was once strong enough to hinder Samuel in a full sprint, suddenly fell still. It no longer carried with it the winter cold, as it stagnated now in a hot, musty mist of dust and dirt kicked into the air by gusts that never came. The atmosphere reminded Samuel of antique shops and homes of the elderly, places where all forms of matter seem to constantly be in the process of a withering in a slow-motion death. The door seemed a Godsend from the acidic air as he rushed in without greeting or invitation.
Immediately on setting foot in the shack a strange sensation crept about under his skin.
“Have I been here before?”
Samuel asked the empty space of the house’s living room. It was an inhospitable place, barely less toxic than the world outside; the thick of the dust incubated a moldy stench that pumped through every crack in the ancient wood. There was more bacteria alive in the house than there was broken wood paneling, and Samuel was nearly sure it meant to consume him. A fireplace caught Samuel’s eye first, so large as if to emphasize how small the room was. Between him and it there was a single beige armchair, a pathetic article that looked older than time itself, set off to the side and facing slightly away from the fireplace as if it was expecting company. To the right of the entrance was a door, and to the left was a kitchen, pristine compared to the living room. No dishes out, no dishes dirty, not scratches or wear on the table, as if the kitchen was made and then left there forever unused. Samuel drifted in, feeling like he was the ghost in someone else’s haunted house story.
Dust escaped from between the cracks of the tile flooring with an audible puff, the kind of sighing sound that made it seem to Samuel that the place had been holding its breathe in anticipation for someone to arrive. And instantly his own words came back to him,
“This place was meant for me…waiting for me…”
The door opposite the kitchen opened,
“Don’t be making so much noise you little shit!”
Cawed an old woman as she emerged. She clawed from her crevice of a cabin, convulsing with every step in a cracking controversy of cartilage. A crooked crow if ever one was conceived, contriving contempt in her stare, in her walk, in the air of her home, and not least of all in her call to Samuel,
“Boy, Samuel! Help me to my chair! Light the fireplace! Put the kettle on, dammit make yourself useful somehow!”
Samuel cocked his head as the hag made her way curiously to the cushion near the fireplace. She was completely grey of hair and easily two feet shorter than Samuel. Her body was, in a subtle way, mangled and deformed. Her chin would never rise from being embedded in the left side of her collarbone, no matter how much she struggled to lift it. Her left arm shrunk into her ribcage in a similar way, causing the skin at the elbow to atrophy into a sagging, piss-yellow bag that held no more than an empty vessel that may have once had some life to it. But the orders more than anything struck him as a car strikes a deer: dumbly he stood, his mind working to think, to process, to remember something on the tip of his tongue. He could feel it, but the words would only leave his lips so quickly,
“That walk…that skin…that hair…that voice…! Great Grandma, what are you…how are you here?”
She slammed her fist into the arm of her chair as hard as a broken old lady could, shrieking after him,
“This is my home, isn’t it? I am still permitted to live in my home, by the grace of your lazy ass, aren’t I? Or do you want to take that away from me too?”
Samuel seethed to his core with a white-hot fury so bright it blinded him to the more immediate questions. All he could think was,
“What did I ever take away from you? Was it your youth? You threw that away when you had my grandmother at sixteen, then when you stole my mother away from her when grandma gave birth at fourteen. You fucked up raising grandma but blamed it all on her and my mother…and me. Could it be your dreams I took away from you? No, I never interfered with any of the rich old men you fucked for money. That was your dream, wasn’t it? To fuck for the scraps off the playboys’ table, it had to be, because that’s the most you ever did for yourself, you c-“
Great Grandma interrupted Samuel’s train of thought,
“Samuel, chair, quickly!”
And the train truly was only one of thought. As viciously as his tongue danced behind his teeth, and no matter how far into his hands he dug his nails, Samuel could not bring the words to leave his lips. He panicked as he looked over to see her glaring at him from her cocked angle, unblinking, impatient and completely without sympathy. It was an instinctual reaction, like that of a boxer blocking a blow without thinking after taking one too many to the head. Samuel set the metal box down on the kitchen table and made his way over to her and gently set her down in the chair, a process that forced him to lower her by holding her at the armpits in order to keep her from falling. When he pulled away his palms were as rank as the worst concaves of the woman’s outer layer. Before Samuel could look down and examine what mess she had wrought on him, she snapped,
He ignited it by switch but nothing happened.
“The gas first, idiot,”
He stood up and twisted the knob on the gas. So slowly he turned it, though he was unsure why at first. It seemed obvious that he might be trying to take refuge in acting slow, delaying having to take the next order from Great Grandma for as long as possible. But the possibility drifted about in his mind, as floaty and weightless as a feather in the wind, that he was waiting for the gas to fill the room. Whether or not he would make his escape before the air became completely unbreathable was the furthest thing from his mind. Regardless of what Samuel may or may not have found himself thinking he lit the fire quite non-fatally and turned back to Great Grandma with his head bowed. She leaned in intending to make eye contact with him as she said,
“Thank you, dear boy,” but it was impossible for her to meet his gaze with her head unable to move as it should. Lastly and finally she demanded,
“Now the tea…”
Saying “tea” in the same tone most people would say “holocaust”. Samuel went into the kitchen and began preparing. He knew the teapot quite well, and it knew him, as it had taken some bits of it with him. During some fit of rage Great Grandma threw the pot against a well and shattered the wooden grip that kept the heat of the pot from traveling to the handle. Samuel had bought new ones many a time, but Great Grandma treated them like flags planted in her ass to mark her as a defeated woman, and she would not be defeated. She hid them somewhere on the land around her little shack, and Samuel knew that somewhere out there, a plot in the ground exists with enough iron in tea pots to forge a battleship. Or a sword. Or even a knife would do. The bit of anger that had broken the grip was just a few days before Great Grandma’s bones fused together; Samuel couldn’t recall exactly what it was, as he always pictured her like that. It must have been a car crash as there was nothing genetic, he thought, or maybe a stroke. He didn’t put it past her to be faking it, nor would it surprise him if she faked it so long that the bones actually began to believe it as much as she did.
“Now the TEA!”
Samuel snatched up the kettle and turned the corner sharply,
“Don’t run with it…If I haven’t told you thousands of times…I don’t want you to spill it.”
Four feet from the kitchen to Great Grandma. Ten seconds to pour the tea. Three hundred and fifty degrees of heat blasting quietly off the metal. Samuel finished and turned look into the fire, stoically hiding his agony. As any normal person would look into an inferno and have its heat reflected in their eyes, the fire in Samuel reflected off the fire, as it was a thousand times a thousand in intensity. If it were a material thing the pain off his hands could fuel that tiny blaze for a century and a half, but it was not pain from any of his appendages that dwarfed this pyre. Great Grandma called out to him,
“Samuel, listen to me!”
His head whipped about and looked into the woman. She raised her tea to her lips and Samuel caught glance of half of a dissatisfied face out of the cripple. These words followed:
“Family’s all that matters you know. Loyalty to them, no matter what… Do you hear me? No matter what. My husbands tried to take from me, my daughters too, that’s all the ungrateful bitches ever wanted from the moment I got them out of me, is what I had. What I earned. I lived through the depression you know. My mother found an investment banker that had made some good calls to shack up with, and she wooed him. Stupid man didn’t understand family or loyalty or dynasty. Wouldn’t give us what we were owed for putting up with his ‘passions’ and his ‘adventures’, not until we had found a business for ourselves he said. An impossible task. Impossible! No one is going to look at us and our nobility, our royal blood, and give us a fair shot. Pathetic man wasn’t worth a damn thing until he threw himself off a building. Then the money went into the hands of some real brains, the masterminds behind how the world works.
“But of course those fucks in Washington will take everything you ever worked for. They don’t mind you when you’re like your great-great-grandpa, when you have no balls. When you play by the rules and enterprise and invest in the simple things…the common things. Land, ha! Research, ha! No, they mind you when you want to indulge though. When you want to try to feel a single damn thing in this bleak, hopeless, untrustworthy world, then they take from you. Because that’s the only way they get their jollies is by taking away the only thing that makes a person worth a damn. My money, my…
“I only ever tried to escape because they made my world so rotten. Those girls, those rotten girls, with egos so big they rot the world by standing on it. My daughter…and her daughter…off living the mundane life. And all they gave me was this fucking field…and you. They take everything from me and give me you. Such mockery, and I hate being mocked. I hate living in a field and I hate the small towns we have to drive to in order to get our shitty packaged food. Why can’t we ever have anything worth eating? Ha! You wouldn’t know how to make it anyways. You’re just like those people in that town. Three things happen to people from small towns, Samuel. One, they’re girls and they get pregnant. Two, they’re smart boys and they go to college. And three, they’re dumb boys and they join the army. You don’t have the tits for a baby, and you haven’t the brains for college…so how did you fuck up the army? Why did you even come back? What are you gonna do now? How did you fuck up, boy? Answer me!”
Samuel took a breath, unable to answer. He wasn’t sure what Great Grandma was talking about at first, but then it came to him, just as the words came to him when speaking to the girl, his mouth worked in tandem with his mind,
“I…tried. I spoke to a recruiter and everything, but…they told me…”
“What? That you’re just like my father? That you got the balls of a kitten?”
“…I failed the psychological screening. There’s something wrong with me in the head…They say it’s like I got hit by a truck and I can’t toughen up like I gotta.”
Great Grandma shouted at him, shaking the house with her righteous indignation,
“Well there’s gotta be something fucked up if you came back here with news like that! You go back and tell them you’re from a different state or have a different name or something. And keep going back until they take you! Until they get rid of you!”
Samuel turned around, trying to hide tears, but it was obvious that he was weeping, however repressed it was. He said desperately,
“I did go back! I did, and I…I…”
Suddenly the tears stopped. His body recognized that they were no longer adequate in expressing what he felt. The intense sorrow Great Grandma had instilled for his failure was replaced with terror, with revelation. It was replaced with the image of the metal box he had unburied in the field around Great Grandma’s shack. The feeling was that of an out-of-body experience as he retrieved it from the kitchen table, so remote Samuel could almost hear his own voice screaming to try and stop himself. But nevertheless, he opened it as if it had never been locked.
“Oh my God, Samuel, what have you done?!”
The head of Samuel’s army recruiter, disembodied by way of crude carving with a steak knife, was stuffed into the metal box. Samuel looked on it and felt every compulsion to run away he felt the last time he saw it, the same compulsions that lead him to wandering as he had. But now the twisted roads and sinister hills had led him back to it. And back to her.
“You’re just like me now. No one will want to talk to you, no one will accept you, all because you made one little mistake that they’ll never let you forget. Just like me…Just like me.”
Samuel sat below her, curled up in a ball so tightly he couldn’t even feel the warmth of the fireplace touch him. All there was to Samuel in that ball he made was his own heartbeat, and his own solitary voice. His tongue danced behind his tongue, once more seething.
“Just like me…”
She chanted once more.
Samuel bared his teeth.
“You know what you are, Great Grandma? You’re a hateful, prideful person that’s fallen into a pit of glass. A pit that no matter what you do to move or escape, you get cut, get hurt. And you dig downwards to try to get out, you dig into the glass thinking that if you keep making mistakes that as long as it’s your way you’ll eventually dig your way to freedom. And now, I’m in a pit too. But you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to swallow my pride now and call for help. Because that’s the only way for me to get out of the pit and I know it. But you? You’ve denied this for so long, dug yourself so deep, even if you tried to climb back up to the surface, you’d die before anyone could hear you. The glass that you were so sure would yield to you would cut you and bleed you long before you got out of its reach.”
Samuel stood up and looked down at Great Grandma, feeling like he was standing miles over her. He said grimly,
“I’m turning myself in for what I’ve done. I’ll seek help if I’m allowed it and take punishment if I deserve it…and tell them what you did to me if it means anything at all.”
Samuel began to leave, but unlike before, unlike when he sought to wander until he found some consequence for his crime, he did so in full view of Great Grandma.
“They’ll never listen! They’ll kill you for what you did! It’s a cruel, merciless world out there, and they don’t care if you’re repentant, they’ll kill you all the same! Samuel! SAMUEL!”
He closed the door behind him and hoped for the hills to favor his destination.