by Louise Dragon
Portal 7298 remained buried at the base of Den Mountain for 276 years. A freak mudslide had buried it completely in the spring of 1733; and so the sentry slept. Heavy rains tormenting the Ozarks in the winter of 2009 washed away the last vestiges of earth, clay and debris. Once again, sentry felt the warmth of the sun on his planks. The sentry completed a quick check on its systems, before continuing to doze.
Corky Rolf hunched his shoulders trying to bury his neck and ears deeper into the worn old parka he’d pinched from Archer House. He wished he’d taken food and water before he’d run off. His mind wandered back a little . . .
“Corky, what’s this?” Anton Marlow had asked flipping a half pack of Marlboros across the bedspread.
Corky looked from Anton’s face to the cigarettes, his mind reaching for an excuse . . . any excuse. A lie . . . even a lie might work.
“Well . . .” Anton began, tapping on the cigarette pack.
Corky looked at his feet.
Anton sighed. “You know the rules. You’re too young to smoke. Spend the next four hours in your room reflecting on your actions. I’m also revoking your phone and television privileges for the weekend.” Anton picked up the pack and broke each of the remaining cigarettes into his palm. He left the room and Corky heard the whoosh of a toilet flush.
A frown deepened between Corky’s eyes while a hank of bedspread twisted between his fists. Ten minutes later he’d pinched a coat and a flashlight from the halfway house, and in thirty minutes he was half a mile away – working his way quickly through the forest.
They’ll be sorry, Corky’s mind worked overtime as he kicked at a heap of pinecones in his path. Lose my privileges? What efin privileges? – He struck a blow at a wide fir branch and it smacked back at his teary face. I’m never going back there . . . never.
By morning, however, Corky’s rumbling stomach and voracious thirst began to soften his resolve.
Curious humming crept into the pit of Corky’s empty stomach. He stopped and glanced around. Was he hearing it or feeling it? The sensation soothed his frazzled nerves and tortured stomach. He decided to move ahead a tad further.
As soon as the humming started . . . it dissipated and when Corky stumbled through the dense brush into a small clearing at the base of a mountain, he’d already lost all memory of the drone.
The small cabin, scrunched into the side of the mountain like a forgotten toy, belonged in a Rockwell painting. Old and weather beaten, it had a scrubbed look: clean and inviting. A stone well drew Corky’s attention and he quickly cranked up a bucket of beautifully clear water -- gulping with gusto. The water was cold and wet, but flat somehow: synthetic, not really thirst quenching – not as refreshing as he had expected.
Behind the well Corky spied a tangle of blackberry vines. As he picked handfuls of the plump fruit he wondered where the birds were and why they hadn’t beaten him to these tempting treats. The berries looked fat, juicy and enticing, but they were disappointingly sour and lifeless. They did quiet Corky’s rumbling stomach, however.
Why is it so quiet? Not a birdcall, or insect buzz?
Corky tapped on the cabin door and it silently swung inward giving him his first glimpse inside. The cabin -- only one room -- revealed no one was home. Inside the cabin was as neat as the outside . . . no cobwebs and no dust. Someone must be living here . . . maybe they had just stepped out to . . . to what? Shoot a deer for dinner?
Corky, leaving the door ajar, explored the interior of the small cabin. He saw a stone fireplace, small table with one chair, and a neatly made bunk. Corky circled that bunk, he’d had one long exhausting night and now that his thirst and hunger had abated, sleep was next on his list.
“Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” Corky jeered, then quickly clapped a berry stained hand to his mouth. His words sounded tinny . . . hollow.
“Hello . . .Hello.” his voice seemed cracked and strained -- unfamiliar.
What I wouldn’t give for a cigarette. Corky remembered the mashed up tobacco in Anton’s palm. Had it been only yesterday? The humming sensation from the clearing washed quickly over him then stopped suddenly.
Corky turned in a full circle – stopped and gaped at the mantle above the stone fireplace. A familiar red and white pack lay on the mantle with a plain pack of book matches. Glancing quickly at the open door, Corky covered the distance between bunk and mantle in two giant steps. Seconds later he lit up and inhaled expecting the normal burst of nicotine buzz and not getting it. He examined the cigarette – ordinary white trunk with a gold filter -- but it tasted like varnish and made his stomach turn. He stubbed it out in the fireplace, removed his muddy shoes and frayed jacket, and stretched out wearily on the soft bunk.
The sentry watched quietly until the boy was asleep. It’s shapeless yellow form floated out of the wall and hovered over the sleeping figure. Misty fronds swirled in and out of the vaporous creature. The ancient ones had left the sentry here, but he needed to renew this portal’s energy from time to time to continue. He would be so glad to finally step out of the clearing and into this colorful world. The portal now held a renewed sentry.
The boy who left the clearing that afternoon looked like Corky Rolf and walked like Corky Rolf, but was not Corky Rolf.
Corky Rolf’s essence churned without shape and screamed without sound from the eaves of Portal 7298.
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