The door thumped closed behind him, and he immediately turned around and tried to open it, his mind racing, panicking in the suffocating dark. And then his fingers found a little round hole and he pushed in the key and the door opened again. He looked out into the forest, breathing hard.
‘Calm down,’ he said out loud. He often spoke to himself when he was terrified. Up until now, he’d only felt that kind of fear trying to climb one of the towering pines or when he swam too far out to sea and the current threatened to take him. This was something else. After a couple of minutes, he stepped back in and let the door close behind him. He had the key; he was alright.
Slowly, he fumbled in the dark, feeling around for purchase and finding it not on rough bark but on cool stone. Keeping one hand on the stone, he made his way through the pitch black, always remembering that every step forward was another he’d have to take back.
The air was suffocating. It was so thick that breathing was more like drinking. The asphyxiation was an illusion, however, and after a few minutes he found he only needed to take a breath every twenty or thirty seconds. That wasn’t the difference, either. He felt heavy, weighed down. The hair on his head lay flat, and he could almost feel his joints compressing with every step. ‘Different gravity,’ he told himself.
At some point, he found he could see the wall beside him, and soon after that he could see all of the other walls. He was in a cave of some sort. It was quite narrow, maybe five steps from one end to the other, and it slowly curved to the left, uphill all the way. He guessed he’d been walking slowly for five minutes or so when he saw the light at last, rounding the last turn, and here the path levelled and straightened.
When he reached the cave opening, he leaned up against the rock wall on the right and just stared. He really was here. A totally different world. Not earth, but somehow so like earth it was unnerving. The cave seemed to open about halfway up a mountain, and from a ledge jutting out from the opening he could see the vast landscape that stretched out in all directions, the horizon limited only because a heavy mist hung over everything.
The mountain dropped below him in a series of steep but climbable steppes, ending in a boulder strewn field of long, red tinged grass. That ran on until it was taken over by an enormous forest full of white barked, black leaved trees which extended on into the mist. He couldn’t make out the source of the sound of running water to his right but in the planes on that side of the forest a river met a sparkling green lake the far side of which he could not see, even from here. Even the sky was odd, pale green instead of blue and packed with more stars than he’d ever seen before, although it appeared to be daylight. He couldn’t see a sun anywhere, but plenty of moons.
‘Bloody hell.’ He let out the breath he’d been holding and shook his head in wonder. He felt weak. It had to be a dream. Or a hallucination. He’d been so tired, after all. He was probably asleep in bed, or at the foot of the tree he’d carved. This could not be real.
But the cut in his hand still stung, and the feel of dusty stone under his palm was too real to ignore.
‘Hey,’ he said, a smile spreading across his face. ‘I guess Santa’s real after all.’
He was still sitting on the ledge almost half an hour later, daydreaming and marvelling at the scenery before him, when a passage from the Book of Worlds came to him and he jumped to his feet, terrified. ‘SHIT!’ He turned and sprinted back into the cave as fast as he could, forcing himself to slow down a little as the darkness enveloped him once more. He found the wall and kept his hand to it to steady himself as he hurried over the rocky ground, and when he reached the door he fumbled for the key with one hand while the other sought the lock, muttering under his breath. ‘No, no, no, Oh, God, please make it okay.’
Finally, he jammed the key into the small hole and pushed as hard as he could, falling onto the muddy forest floor on the other side and rolling partway down the hill before he managed to recover his feet. He stared around him, breathing hard and trying to take everything in at once. The sun wasn’t quite up, it looked like it was still morning, but what day was it? Checking his phone would be useless – it had gone with him into the world, after all.
He closed his eyes and calmed himself. He would close the door, go home, and look at the clock on his laptop. It would say 5.30am, 7th of July, 2010, and all would be well. And next time he would remember a simple fact that could end life as he knew it.
The key had fallen out of his pocket and he picked it up and stuffed it back, before pushing the door closed with a soft thud. He stood back and looked at it. It was possible to see the outline in the mottled bark, and the hole, but only if you were looking for it. He turned and headed home as fast as he could, covered in mud and pine needles, terrified, exhausted, and excited all at the same time.
He couldn’t wait to tell the others.