Steph Courson contrived to break Matt free of his parents as soon as church finished that morning. While he was filing out behind his parents, she hopped his back fence, petted Pudding, the overzealous beagle, and entered via the back door as planned. She headed straight for the garage, where she retrieved the tall metal ladder Matt’s father used to paint the house, and took it around the side of the house.
They wouldn’t be able to replace the thing until the parents were out of the way, of course, but that was alright. In Matt’s family Sunday afternoons usually consisted of all the family members retiring to their bedrooms for a siesta, followed by quiet reading until dinnertime, and then an hour of television, and bed. The parents wouldn’t set foot outside all day.
Steph lay the ladder on the ground and took position under Matt’s window until she heard the three of them arrive home and enter. Only then did she lean it against the brick wall, positioning the top just under Matt’s windowsill. Finally, at quarter to twelve, she heard a rusty squeak as he opened it, glanced nervously outside, and descended the two stories.
At the bottom, he let out a sigh of relief and flashed her a grin. ‘Good work, Mr. Bond,’ he said in a low voice.
‘Uh, Mrs. Bond.’
‘Did you get double food?’
‘Yeah, what, they don’t let you eat on Sundays?’
‘No meat. I just had toast and butter for breakfast. Bloody hell.’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Hopefully sleeping. This place will be a graveyard till tonight, don’t worry.’
‘Let’s get out of here.’
Steph got along best with Matt. Dale was too moody and Brian, despite his cheerfulness, had an intensity about him that was almost exhausting. Matt had a knack for making people laugh. No subject was too serious for him, and if it wasn’t for his smile he wouldn’t get away with half of it. As they walked, he told her about his parents, who were slowly becoming less like guardians and more like prison wardens. She showed him the steak knife she’d brought from home and they speculated about Brian’s bizarre requests.
‘He says we’ll be back well before dinner, but reckons we need as much food as we can bring,’ Matt said. ‘And what’s with the weapons? Kid’s lost it. He’s totally lost it.’
‘He must be onto something, though, right? I mean, he’s weird, but he doesn’t just make stuff up, does he?’
‘Na. He gets a bit excited though, doesn’t he? He’s like a dog that brings dead animals to the door.’
‘No, not in a bad way. Just, stuff he thinks is amazing everyone else is like, whatever. Or it’s weird. Remember that cave he found at the other end of the park? And he tried to get us to build a clubhouse in?’
‘Yeah. Still, I’m curious.’
‘Yup. Hey, give me a sandwich, woman.’
She punched him on the arm, instead.
When they got to the cliffs they found the others waiting, and Brian was practically trembling with excitement. He had a backpack that looked to be bursting at the seams with god knew what, and a ten inch razor sharp kitchen knife was tucked into his belt. When he saw them, his face lit up and he raced forward. ‘Steph! Operation success!’
‘Of course. Gets harder every time, though.’
‘Whatever, you made it. Alright, kids, gather round, I’ve got a story to tell you before we get going.’
They followed him to the base of the cliffs, a quiet corner where they often sat on stone ledges, talking, or climbing higher where they could swing from the roots of giant trees protruding from the clay. Brian dropped his backpack in the shade and took out a ragged old book.
‘This, folks, is what it’s all about.’
Steph glanced at Elyse and the other girl brushed her brown hair back and raised her eyebrows. Don’t look at me, I don’t know either.
So Brian told them. He spoke quickly, his words almost falling over each other, and they listened in silence until he told about pulling open the door and entering another world. Matt let out a barely restrained snort. Steph looked at the ground, unable to conceal her disappointment. Brian had read some book and got over excited about it. Typical. He was fun to be around but… this stuff was so tiring sometimes.
‘So the knives…?’ Matt said, eyebrows raised.
‘I don’t know what kind of things live there. What if we get attacked by an alien or something.’
‘Of course. I see now. That makes complete sense.’
Brian sighed held up his hands in surrender. ‘Alright, alright. I knew you’d be like this. So what we’re going to do now is go up into the forest, and I’ll show you myself.’
He was breathing hard, his eyes wide, and Steph felt a twinge of worry. He didn’t look sane. She’d always known there was something weird about Brian, but until now she’d never have guessed how serious it was. He was so earnest about it all.
Dale was shaking his head. He spat a glob of phlegm onto the stonework and spoke in a thick voice. ‘You owe me some whiskey, man. I’m really not up for jokes today.’
‘Look, all I really need is for one of you to come and see it, just to prove I’m not losing my mind. Any takers?’
‘Brian. You are an idiot.’ Elyse said flatly. She looked as disappointed as Steph felt, and pissed off to boot. Steph couldn’t say she blamed her. ‘I’m sick, and you dragged me all the way out here in this heat because of some stupid story?’
‘It’s not – ’
‘Yeah, yeah. You’re my friend and everything but seriously? We’re not five years old. I’m going. I need some sleep. See you guys later.’
She turned to go. Matt glanced at Brian, who was staring at her with a surprised expression on his face, as if he hadn’t expected any of them to doubt him – and stepped in front of Elyse. He spoke in a low voice, but Steph was close enough to hear. ‘Hey, don’t be so hard on him, yeah? We’re here now, let’s just go. Don’t you remember how we used to play around here when we were kids? He’s just trying to bring that back.’
‘But we’re not kids. I like Brian, but he’s such a… child sometimes. It’s like he stopped aging at ten or something. Come on Matt, I’m sick. You guys can have your fun and let me know how it goes, I’m not in the mood.’
She moved to leave again but this time it was Steph who put a hand on her shoulder. She’d been watching Brian who was sitting at the foot of the cliffs, watching them talk about him with the most miserable look on his face she’d ever seen. It had struck her, then, that he was genuine about the whole thing. He believed it, really believed it, and he couldn’t understand why they didn’t believe it as well. ‘Elyse,’ she whispered. ‘I really think you should come.’
‘Steph, you don’t honestly believe –’
‘No, but he does, and doesn’t that worry you a little bit? I mean, this isn’t just immaturity. He’s being serious. I think there might be something wrong with him. Maybe not but… I dunno. I’m worried. Maybe we should just go with him, see what happens when he has to admit it’s not real.’
She hesitated, looked over at Brian and saw him, staring at the ground now, depressed. Steph didn’t like the look of him one bit. The words Schizophrenic and Manic came to mind. She’d learned about this stuff in psych and he was behaving pretty similar to some of those profiles. Elyse nodded, eventually, and turned back to Brian.
‘Well, we’re already here. I guess we might as well go.’
He gave her a half smile, the relief evident on his face, but it was tinged with sadness, as though he’d learned something unpleasant about his friends. Whatever it was, he shook it off a moment later and stood up, looking around. ‘Okay, guys, lets…’ He trailed off, and Steph followed his gaze and realised why Dale had been so silent during all this: while they’d been talking, he’d slipped off somewhere and left them.
‘God damn it,’ Matt said. ‘I hate how he can do that. How does he do that?’
‘Never mind,’ Brian said, sounding as though he minded very much. ‘Let’s just go. The place is close enough.’
The forest was a five minute walk away, after all. Brian stuffed the book back in his pack and led them, marching purposefully through the forest until they were somewhere deep in the middle, where the ground was thick with dead leaves and pine needles. He stopped in front of an enormous pine tree.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Here it is.’
Steph stared. It looked like any other tree to her, but when she squinted she thought she could make out the deep trenches in the bark where Brian had cut the door. And there was the hole.
‘Uh, mate. It’s a tree, yeah? You know that right?’ Matt said, putting a gentle hand on Brian’s shoulder. Brian shook it off, pulling what looked like a twig from his pocket. He said he’d made a key, but as far as Steph could tell, it was nothing but a piece of bark shaved into a point with a few notches cut in the end. Brian held it up reverently, like a sacred object.
They all watched, exchanging worried glances with each other, as Brian inserted the piece of bark into the hole.
Steph didn’t know whether to feel concerned for his mental health or angry that he’d brought them all here for this madness. She opened her mouth to speak, but decided at the last second not to say a word. The best way to get him to understand that he was imagining things was to let him see for himself. She crossed her arms and waited, but when Brian twisted the little twig, she heard something completely unexpected: the sound of a key clicking in a lock. Brian stepped back, pulling a large, arch shaped slab of bark with him, and all of a sudden they were staring into the dark hollow of the pine.
‘Well, that’s pretty cool,’ Matt said.
‘It’s still just a tree,’ Elyse said. Steph couldn’t help but agree. If anything, she was more concerned than ever, now that she saw the amount of effort he’d put into the illusion. Brian didn’t answer, simply turning around and flashing them a mischievous grin. Before any of them could respond, he stepped over the threshold and disappeared into the darkness. He was gone.
Matt was the first to break the silence with a loud, delighted laugh. ‘Oh, come on,’ he said, smiling at them. ‘That was pretty cool. Even Dale couldn’t pull off a trick like that.’
Elyse sniffed. ‘What are you talking about? He just cut a hole in a tree and stepped inside. Now he’s hiding, and as soon as one of us steps inside he’ll grab them or something and scare the shit out of them. It’s one of his dumb jokes.’
They stood in silence for a while, thinking this over. ‘Isn’t it kinda weird how we can’t see in, though?’ Steph said, squinting into the dark. ‘How did he do that?’
Elyse shrugged. ‘He just got the angles right, that’s all. Why else did he want us to meet at this exact time?’
‘What about the lunches and knives?’ Matt pointed out.
‘Adding to the effect. Every magician knows the illusion is everything, just ask Dale.’ Elyse said.
‘Okay,’ Matt said, nudging her forward. ‘Since you’ve got it all worked out, you go in.’
‘Come on, I’m sick as it is. Last thing I need’s a bloody heart attack. You go.’
Matt snorted, handed Steph his red lunchbox, and cracked his knuckles. ‘Alright, Brian me lad! Hold your testicles, I’m coming in!’
With that, he marched straight into the hollow, vanishing into the dark with frightening suddenness. There were no sounds. No scuffling, shouting, or laughter. He just went.
After a minute or so, Steph turned to look at Elyse, uncertain. ‘He’s in on it,’ she said. ‘Has to be.’
Elyse nodded. ‘That’s why Dale slipped away, before, he probably had to prepare something. It was probably half his idea, him and his bloody magic tricks. God, they’re such children.’
Steph nodded, but she couldn’t help but feel a little relieved. Immature boys were a lot less worrying than boys with questionable sanity. Elyse turned back to the tree and squared her shoulders, the picture of mature impatience. ‘Well, I’m sick and I don’t have time for this. I don’t care if it is a prank, I just want to know what’s going on.’
With that, she took two steps, hesitated, closed her eyes and stepped through the doorway. Like the others, she was gone in an instant.
‘What the fuck?’ Steph whispered. Before she could call after her, Dale emerged from behind a nearby tree, making her jump.
‘Jesus, Dale! Where the hell have you been?’
He didn’t answer at first, pacing slowly around the tree with a furrowed brow. ‘I don’t get it, he said.’ They’re definitely all in there. The only thing I can think of is a deep hole, or else the whole tree is hollow and they’re piled up inside. Pretty impressive setup, either way. I’m surprised he got Elyse to go along with it, she was pretty convincing.’
‘Dale, are you serious? This has you written all over it. I don’t know how you got Elyse to go along, either. Making her cause a fuss so you could sneak off.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘No way, Steph. I snuck off because I knew Brian was trying to pull some trick and I wanted to see how he did it. This kind of thing is pure audience trust and illusion. I figured if he didn’t know where I was I could see things he didn’t want me to, you know?’
‘Huh. Did you?’
But Dale only shrugged. ‘No, but that tells us all we need to know, doesn’t it? Either a deep hole, or a hollow tree, and they’re all in on the game. No other explanation.’
‘Unless you’re in on it, too. In which case I’m the sucker. Oh, this is going to be funny. Ha, ha, you guys.’
But she didn’t feel like laughing at all, and Dale didn’t look like he was joking. He was a great magician, but he couldn’t lie to save his life. Besides that, his theories didn’t make sense.
‘There’s no way,’ she said quietly. ‘There’s just not enough space for them all to fit in there, unless they were standing on each other’s heads or something. And I’m pretty sure we’d hear it. It’s not right that we can’t hear them or see them. Why is it so dark in there?’
But Dale didn’t answer. He looked disturbed.
‘Dale? I’m kind of… scared. If this is a trick, can it just end now? Please?’
He gave her a smile, but she could see he felt the same. This wasn’t any kind of magic trick either of them had ever seen. Her skin was tingling, and a breeze chilled the sweat on her forehead.
‘I’ll go first,’ he said. ‘If it’s a trick and they’re all in there somehow, I promise I’ll ruin it and shout out to you, yeah?’
‘Okay. Okay, thanks. What if…’
‘If I don’t? Then, I dunno. Come find me.’
He slapped her on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry. Brian’s weird but he wouldn’t make us do something dangerous. I don’t know how he’s done this, but it’s pretty impressive, and I’m dying to figure out how he did it. See you soon, okay?’
He shot her one last nervous smile, hefted his school bag over his shoulder, and stepped through the door. Once again, there were no sounds, no evidence that there was anyone inside the tree at all. Just the dark.
Steph clutched the lunchbox, her knuckles white, her teeth gritted. She realised she was holding her breath, waiting to hear Dale’s shout, but of course it didn’t come. Another chill wind wafted through the trees, dragging dry leaves over her shoes. She shifted her weight, swallowed. Still nothing.
She couldn’t wait forever. Finally, she took a deep breath and entered the hollow.