Jordan guided us through the narrow gap between the Electrochemistry building and the slope’s natural rock formation. I touched my hand against the building’s cold foundation, liberated untold years ago from the mountainside. It was a beautiful thing. A place—a palace for human learning was relieved from the unforgiving planet. Built atop, from, and through the resistant nonsense we coincidentally occupied and battled. Such was life’s cruel displeasure. Chilly and unfit for these climes, we students foraged deeper into the gap between purpose and chaos, feeling the space narrow, until at last I turned my shoulders sideways, lest I feel a tomb’s ghostly stillness while I still lived.
“Why has it come to this?” Jasper wondered aloud as we wriggled forward. Jordan managed a look back from her place in the lead. “We were enjoying the day’s morning. A normal one. And then fate aims a pistol at the head of our place in all this. Except we aren’t certain if it’s a pistol, if it’s a head it’s aimed toward, or if the one doing the aiming is kind or cruel. To discover answers, to even ask these questions, means to enrage the senses and systems we’ve come to trust. You’re correct to be angry, Jordan.”
“I’m not angry,” Jordan answered. “I am simply correct.”
We emerged from the narrow gap to an opening large enough for us to stand comfortably, though it was no solace. The stone underfoot was deeply cracked and above was the sky some distance away. It was a dried well. Before us was another crevice split in the foundation’s rock, hardly half my height. Instantly dark and with no end in sight, this was undoubtedly what Jordan intended we see.
“This is our way in?” I asked.
“None of us are fit to move through this gap,” Ianto said.
“It’s a straight line to the cellar,” Jordan indicated. “The building was designed this way to let mineral waters flow into a trough for collection. Lorna herself went on and on about how important the mountain was. I asked her—why’d the Five Old Men bother placing the school here. She said—how could it possibly exist somewhere else? The mountain’s rock, soil, and chemistry are fucked up and down.”
“How’s that?” Jasper asked.
“It’s too hot,” Jordan said. She motioned to the surroundings. “Hotter than it oughta be. And it comes apart.” She reached out to the old stone well and put her fingers to the wall. She grunted and pulled away flecks of what I initially believed to be solid rock. It shaved away like clay in brilliant flakes. “Never noticed this, have you?”
“I’ve kept both eyes on the sky,” Jasper answered.
“I’ll go through,” I said. I’d set my sights on the crack in the foundation. It was slim. I breathed in as best I could just looking at the gap.
“He is more slight than the rest of us,” Ianto said.
“That’s not possible,” Francesca interrupted.
“Jasper and I are both taller. Jordan has wider hips and bust, likely than any of us here. And Francesca, you’re blind. It would be misguided to send you into an environment where you’ve no expertise without a sense of sight.”
“I admit, there isn’t much to see,” I remarked, gazing into the crack. “Though I don’t rescind my offer to go through.”
“You can’t be shocked to learn that I don’t mind darkness,” Francesca said to Ianto. “Or notice it.”
“How far is it?” I asked Jordan.
Jordan shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“It can’t be far,” Francesca remarked. “I can feel air coming through. It’s still warm.”
I pulled off my overcoat. Next, I removed my boots and socks, reducing my frame as much as I could. Wordless, I set a toe into the crack, pivoted sideways and slid my shoulderblades against the rock. Inhaling, I narrowed further and began to inch.
“What’s his name again?” I heard Jordan ask. “Yvonne brought him over to our table to have breakfast this morning—”
“—His name is Keziah Keyes. He arrived in the night just a day and a half ago—” Jasper informed but his voice was already fading.
After the sound dulled to nothing and I continued sliding deeper, the light dimmed. The gap must have bent imperceptibly to keep anything but the tiniest sliver of air passing through. And water, perhaps.
Drops slid down from above. They stained my neck. It was warm. It smelled rich and indulgent. Swimming with impurities. Minerals. Microorganisms. I turned my head altogether sideways. The stone scraped against my ears. I cut the skin on my forehead. I slid further. A thin, slow droplet of blood angled down my brow and dipped into the corner of my eye. It continued down my nose’s edge. I carried on, pushing.
The sides of my skull wedged in a gap. I could move no further. The skin on my cheeks bunched up. I felt my ribs compress. I gasped and cried out. The sound did not travel. It stayed there with me. I shouted again. I attempted to move backward. My head was lodged in this pinch of rock. I slid even deeper. The skin on my face was squeezed more. My eyes were forced shut. I could barely open my mouth. I palmed the rock for balance, as if the crack was lifting me up by my head. I felt with my toes. There was a ledge. There was also an emptiness. There was a drop.
I attempted to move backward once more. I felt my breath quicken with each failed try. I sucked in air and coughed the droplets of blood seeping into the corners of my mouth. I breathed in deeper. I jerked my head from the rock’s grip. I pain rang behind my eyeballs. I yelled. I yelled again, louder, but again, the sound went nowhere, not even an echo. I tried again to pull my skull free, using my hold on the rock to add to the force, the sensation and sound of peeling skin coming next, with more smells of blood and heat.
At last, I had to halt in exhaustion. I could not free myself. There was too much pain and I was too weary. My head had swollen from the bleeding. It was hotter and more immovable now. I sucked in a mixture of saliva and blood. I could spit up some of it but my mouth was still a squeezed pile of skin attempting to free itself from my skull.
The pain was needling. I wept, immobilized. Alone, I remained. I could not conceive of my foolishness. I had attempted this, to what end? To prove to myself? To my new acquaintances that I was not afraid? Some toxic medicine poured in my ear, some inadequacy that I was not enough. Only once I had achieved some madness, or recklessness, or suffering, did I deserve to merely bow in the presence of greatness, never mind to stand in its presence, as its equal.
What an embarrassing way to die. The boy who crawled inside a crack in the mountain and never returned. I wept further in pity. I had been stupid. I had been safe. Then I had been stupid. And now the rocks held me in place. I preferred this now. To stay here, unseen, freed from my own stupidity in death. I would not have to live as the boy who crawled inside a crack in the mountain—I simply had to be the boy who never returned, if death would be so accommodating.
All in the name of I-don’t-know-what. These people I had met were each so brilliant, and unique, and good, and great. And I was none of those things. I overcame no challenge to arrive here. I suffered no malady. None a casual onlooker might comprehend or equate with true malevolence. I had no enemies. Ianto was not my foe. Francesca was not prickly, she simply possessed a personality, which I lacked. I do not know what Jasper saw in me, permitting me the chance to come along with him to the Orrery, and beyond. And Jordan—in the five minutes I’d fully known her, she exuded a certainty and agency I could never know.
I admit, reader, I was always uncertain. I did not know what awaited me at Shackleburg, not ever. I possessed no grace. Only lies for myself. Always, I knew there would come a day when I became inadequate self-company. Just as I was sure that amidst all my inward deceptions, outside forces, consciousnesses—people, I ought to really say—would find me inadequate. They were good and remarkable. I was the boy who crawled inside a crack in the mountain. The day had finally come. Whatever measures I once believed I might take to survive had at last taken a lethal toll.
More blood traveled into my mouth, sucked in like air, and I gagged.
I was ugly. I was born stupid. The good people would carry on without me as I transformed into a nothing-memory, before I decayed into the ultimate nothing that awaits us all. They, my cohorts, had used me as best they could. And I had used them in an attempt to elevate a soul without meaning or purpose. Without purpose, I had never existed in the first place. I was a stone, not even a stepping stone, among thousands of millions, and I would soon die like a dog in the dirt.
I shouted into the nothing, enthralled by this unescapable, venomous brain trapping my recognition of a universe that could not recognize me, embarrassed at my own pride, horrified at my own actions, enraged by the smallness, the limited, the tiny capacity for life one enjoys at the mercy of immovable stones.
My head ripped free. The wedge slipped. I instantly fell. My toes scraped at the smooth rock. My fingers dug in like how Jordan had peeled the stone away with minor effort. I halted myself. My face felt swollen and massive. I knew there was blood in my hair and caked on my chine. I panted. I felt an echo.
I slid and grasped. I could breathe. My ribs expanded and my lungs obeyed. There was a light. I don’t know what I was seeing. I climbed up just a little further toward it. My fingers felt the right angle of human design. I pressed forward and through. I tumbled entirely into a basin of warm water. It was deep. I had to kick to resurface. I snatched forward for the delicious angles of deliberate craft. One more pull and I fell flat on my back on a completely flat surface. Soaked and crying, I lay motionless. Perhaps my body was replenishing itself. Perhaps my mind could not conceive of carrying on? What could I do now? How could I present myself to an indifferent world, now that I had managed to survive my own stupidity?
My head raised to examine my surroundings.
It was a cellar, as Jordan had indicated. A single electric lamp hummed on the opposite side of the room beside stairs.
I struggled and failed to sit up. A minute later, I tried again and succeeded. I removed my shirt and wrung the water from it. I set it on a wood table beside some electrochemistry equipment I could not rightly identify. I removed my trousers and wrung them of water, quickly dressing in them again. I examined my body. Save for the cuts on my arms and toes, and likely many other locations, I seemed washed clean. I pilfered a long coat on a hook and buttoned myself, leaving my old shirt to dry. Whether a laboratory or a storage space for the department, I could find no shoes.
What remained was the stairs carved into the stone, rising from the cellar toward Lorna, locked somewhere in the building.
-- Alex Crumb
Follow on Twitter