There’s nothing to see but the dwindling light of the lantern refracting off the repeating walls.
The sound becomes louder from moment to moment.
It’s the shuffling of footsteps.
I say, “Someone’s coming.”
“How is that possible?”
Movement edges into the periphery of illumination.
A figure coming toward us.
I take a step back, and as they draw closer, I’m tempted to run, but where would I go?
Might as well face it.
It’s a man.
His skin covered in mud or dirt or…
He reeks of it.
As if he rolled around in a pool.
His hair is matted, face smeared and caked so heavily it makes the whites of his eyes stand out.
His hands are trembling and his fingers curled in tightly, like they’ve been clawing desperately at something.
Only when he’s ten feet away do I realize this man is me.
I step out of his way, backing up against the nearest wall to give him the widest possible berth.
As he staggers past, his eyes fix on mine.
I’m not even sure he sees me.
He looks shell-shocked.
Like he just stepped out of hell.
Across his back and shoulders, chunks of flesh have been ripped out.
I say, “What happened to you?”
He stops and stares at me, and then opens his mouth and makes the most terrifying sound I’ve ever heard—a throat-scarring scream.
As his voice echoes, Amanda grabs my arm and pulls me away.
He doesn’t follow.
Just watches us go, and then shuffles on down the corridor.
Into that endless dark.
Thirty minutes later, I’m sitting in front of a door that’s identical to all the rest, trying to wipe my mind and emotional register of what I just saw in the corridor.
Taking a notebook from the backpack, I open it, the pen poised in my hand.
I don’t even have to think.
I simply write the words:
I want to go home.
I wonder, Is this what God feels? The rush that comes from having literally spoken a world into existence? And yes, this world already existed, but I connected us to it. Out of all the possible worlds, I found this one, and it’s exactly, at least from the doorway of the box, what I wanted.
I step down, glass crunching on the concrete beneath my shoes as afternoon light pours through the windows high above, striking a row of iron generators from another era.
Although I’ve never seen it in daylight, I know this room.
The last time I was here a harvest moon was on the rise over Lake Michigan, and I was slumped back against one of these ancient contraptions, drugged out of my mind, staring at a man in a geisha mask who had forced me at gunpoint into the depths of this abandoned power plant.
Staring—though I had no idea at the time—at myself.
I couldn’t have imagined the journey.
The hell that actually awaited me.
The box is situated in a far corner of the generator room, hidden away behind the stairs.
“Well?” Amanda asks.
“I think I did it. This is the last place I saw before waking up in your world.”
We make our way back through the derelict power plant.
Outside, the sun is shining.
It’s late afternoon, and the only sound is the lonely cry of gulls flying out over the lake.
We hike west into the neighborhoods of South Chicago, walking along the shoulder like a pair of drifters.
The distant skyline is familiar.
It’s the one I know and love.
The sun keeps dropping, and we’ve been walking twenty minutes before it dawns on me that we haven’t seen a single car on the road.
“Kind of quiet, isn’t it?” I ask.
Amanda looks at me.
The silence wasn’t so noticeable out in the industrial wasteland near the lake.
Here it’s startling.
There are no cars out.
It’s so quiet I can hear the current running through the power lines above us.
The Eighty-Seventh Street CTA station is closed—no buses or trains running.
The only other sign of life is a stray black cat with a corkscrew tail, slinking across the road, a rat in its jaws.
Amanda says, “Maybe we should go back to the box.”
“I want to see my home.”
“The vibe here is wrong, Jason. Can’t you feel it?”
“We’re not going to learn anything about flying the box if we don’t explore where it takes us.”
“Not exactly walking distance.”
“So we’ll borrow a car.”
We cross Eighty-Seventh and walk a residential block of downtrodden row houses. No street sweeper has been by in weeks. There’s trash everywhere. Disgusting, splitting bags of it in huge piles up and down the sidewalk.
Many of the windows have been boarded up.
Some are covered in sheets of plastic.
From most hang pieces of clothing.
The drone of radios and televisions creeps out of a few houses.
The cry of a child.
But otherwise, the neighborhood stands ominously silent.
Halfway down the sixth block, Amanda calls out, “Found one!”
I cross the street toward a mid-’90s Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.
White. Rusting around the edges. No hubcaps on the wheels.
Through the dirty glass, I glimpse a pair of keys dangling from the ignition.
Pulling open the driver’s-side door, I slide in behind the steering wheel.
“So we’re really doing this?” Amanda asks.
I crank the engine as she climbs into the passenger side.
There’s a quarter tank of gas remaining.
Should be enough.
The windshield is so filthy, it takes ten seconds of pummeling with wiper fluid to scrape away the grime and the dirt and the plastered-on leaves.
The interstate is desolate.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Empty in both directions as far as I can see.
It’s early evening now, the sun glinting off the Willis Tower.
I speed north, and with each passing mile, the knot in my stomach tightens.
Amanda says, “Let’s go back. Seriously. Something is obviously very wrong.”