I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t anymore; the dreams started again. I wake most nights coated in sweat with a strangled scream on my lips, and the feeling that I can’t breathe. Maybe the nightmare is reality, and I’m only now sliding back to it after all these years. Perhaps I’m dead, after all. There are times, especially in the dark of the night, when the rain beats down on the roof with the sound of a cascade of pebbles and the branches beyond my window sway and leer in the shadows, when I wonder if I’m not still back there on the hill.
I’ve tried to reach Logan, but he never answers; I wonder if he shares the same dreams, and doesn’t want to talk about it now because it might make what happened then seem more sinister, more real. Like what happened before is going to come back to haunt us again because it can.
Sometimes it’s easier to bury things we cannot vanquish. We made a vow to each other back then, swore we wouldn’t speak of that night again, and we stuck to it. We skirted around it, and if the conversation looked like it was going to get too close and mean, someone would change the subject and make a joke about girls. We didn’t want it to be real, so we decided to make it fantasy. A month later, Logan moved to England with his mother, and I haven’t seen him since.
I was twelve, Logan was eleven, and John was fourteen. We’d been friends all our lives, growing up on the same placid tree-lined cul-de-sac in Jacksonville, Florida. I lost two friends, my childhood, and pieces of my soul that night. Often, the things we bury rise again; when they come for us, there is no where to hide.
I woke up while it was still dark outside, a hollow, flying feeling in my chest, one of excitement and possibility. It was Saturday morning, and there was no school on Monday. Better still, we had a big plan for the day. This was going to be an adventure, not the lame sort of backyard fantasy we usually engaged in, but an actual exploration of parts unknown. I’d prepared the night before, emptying my school backpack of its crumpled papers and unsigned notes, stacking books and binders on my nightstand, replacing them with four Snickers bars, bottled water, a Swiss-Army Knife, one family-sized bag of Ranch Doritos, and a detailed map of the city.
I checked the time on my phone, a recent addition to my collection of home electronics, and the one I liked the most. Because now I could call and text my friends anytime. I sent John a quick text.
I padded across the wooden floors, putting my shoes on only once I got to the front door. Mom and Dad wanted to sleep in on Saturdays, at least until 7:00. They’d notice me missing, but we had it all planned out. I was at John’s, John was with Logan. Our folks wouldn’t worry, because we did that sort of of thing all the time, and our parents all looked out for us. It wasn’t much of a stretch. We just had to make it home by dark. They would figure someone was watching.
That particular Saturday, though, we were going to travel. We figured that we could maintain an average speed of at least 6 miles per hour on our bikes (we debated this for hours during the days leading up to our excursion.) We had an effective range, therefore, of thirty miles, as long as we still had the stamina to bike home. Five hours in, three to explore, five or six to make it back.
We pedaled hard along silent streets where trees hung low and porch lights casting a meager glow were the only way to tell the street from the sidewalk. The occasional dog barked, but other than that, the night was still, and my breathing seemed louder than it should have been while the tires ground the road and the chain clicked on my red Mongoose. We pushed east and north, following the route we’d planned across the slumbering city. It was late October, and the air was crisp and clean, and my mottled green Army jacket flapped in the wind behind me.
I marveled at my freedom and innate daring and congratulated myself for venturing so far from home in such pirate fashion. I was a benign Columbus, seeking the new world, or Galileo, pushing the boundaries of the solar system, for I was an explorer at heart and a believer in the idea that boundaries were made to be broken. With the wind in my hair and the sun breaking over downtown, I felt something glorious tugging at my soul. Like I knew something no one else knew, a secret made me smile to myself.
An hour after sunrise, we made it to the highest bridge in the city.
“Holy crap,” John grunted, standing on the pedals, grinding up the steep slope of the Dames Point Bridge.
“I’m gonna stop now,” Logan huffed. “Keep going if you want. I’m walking the rest of the way.”
“I’m pretty tired,” I said. “Let’s walk to the top. This thing is nasty.”
“Wimps,” John snorted. But he got off his bike. I think he was relieved that someone had suggested walking.
None of us had ever tried to bike up a hill of any significance. Jacksonville was flat, and this thing was Everest in the winter. Impossible, relentless. I was sweating and out of breath. I climbed off the bike, legs quivering and sweaty under my jeans.
As we neared the top of the bridge, vertigo hit me. The St. John’s River looked like it was miles below. Downtown Jacksonville appeared small in the distance, with the sky-scrapers clustered together off to the south and west. We’d come far.
Cars blew past us, and I noticed some of the drivers giving us dirty looks. A few of them appeared worried. Mostly, though, they ignored us. Since it was early on a Saturday, there wasn’t too much traffic. Still it was dangerous. The bridge was four lanes, and every time a semi went by, I felt the air- wash blast me and threaten to fling me over the low railing.
I paused beside a red bow and fading flowers tied to the metal railing with a string.
“What’s that?” Logan said from behind me.
“Suicide,” John said with authority. “People jump from this bridge every year. Number-one spot here in Jacksonville to end it all.”
All three of us stopped beside the red ribbon, gazing down. I imagined what that would feel like to fall from here. The seconds of flying, with the water hurtling up at me like a concrete wall and the brown marshes sprawling in the distance. What was the last thing he saw, that sad person who leaped into the great unknown? Did he see his mother’s face, or his son or his wife, there at the end? Did he focus on the towering smokestacks at the utility company’s power plant, falling, falling, rather than the river or the sky? Did he wish he hadn’t taken that last step on the way down, screaming because he figured out that he made a mistake after it was too late?
“I wonder why he did it,” I murmured.
“He was brave,” John said, squinting out at the river, his voice two octaves lower than normal, a bit of gravel in it. “He wanted to see if he could do it. I guess he did.”
I cut my eyes sideways at John. He’d been going through it at home, I knew. He didn’t talk about it much. He tried to make jokes about his dad and mom. Sometimes, though, when he had a new purple bruise on his face, he’d get a far-away look in his eyes while he joked, and you just knew how bad he hurt inside. When it was cool outside, in the spring and the fall, the shouting from inside his house spilled out through open windows and onto the street. Sometimes, police came.
“He was a coward,” I said bravely.
John snorted. “What do you know about anything?”
“He gave up. You gotta keep on, and eventually it gets better,” I said with earnest. “If you give up, it never gets better.”
John cocked his head sideways and grinned at me, slapping me on the back of the neck. I was struck by how old and wise he looked just then, like he was a big brother visiting for Christmas and he’d already seen the world, been in the Army, gotten married, and had kids of his own.
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m just messing with you.” But he had that far-away look.
“Let’s go!” Logan howled, already coasting downhill.
“Ya know I’m gonna win,” John said with a sly smile and an exaggerated southern accent, hopping onto his bike with one fluid movement and kicking forward.
We flew down the bridge, and it was glorious. The wind whipped my face and the sun shone golden on the face of the water while I hurtled down the bridge. The smell of the ocean and marsh filled my lungs and I shouted the kind of scream I normally reserved for roller-coasters; this ride was better, though, because it was real, and it was mine. The struggle up was worth every second of the road down. Johnny zipped past Logan during a long lull in traffic, swinging around him and leaning hard into the handlebars, pedaling furiously rather than hitting the brakes.
I hit my brakes every few seconds, because I was going almost as fast as the last car that went by. I whipped around Logan, too, right before he dismounted and decided to walk down. A hundred yards ahead, John put his hands in the air and kept going, no-hands, while the slope of the bridge flattened out.
Johnny stopped ahead and dismounted, waiting for me. My brakes smoked with effort, my entire bike vibrating under me as I slowed.
“Holy crap!” He said.
“Yeah. That was awesome,” I replied, unable to wipe the grin from my face.
“Let’s do that again!”
“We will, on the way back,” I said.
“No, I mean right now. Why not?”
“Well, we’ve still got a long ways to go. That’s a long haul back up.”
“Yeah, but this is the best part. Don’t you think? What’s going to be better than this? We should do this again and go home. Man, that was better than I thought. Freaking amazing.”
“You don’t want to hike the plantation? That’s part of it, you know. See where the slave quarters were. Maybe we’ll see Old Red Eyes.” In local urban legend, “Old Red Eyes” was the ghost of a former slave who’d lived and died at the plantation, a man who’d raped other slaves, and been lynched by fellow slaves for his crimes from a live-oak tree on the grounds. Over the years, many visitors claimed to have seen red eyes glaring at them from the rear-view mirror. We’d discussed the legend and were dying to see for ourselves, though we lacked the resolve to see the grounds at night.
“Not really. I wanted to go on this little trip for the bridge. I couldn’t care less about seeing some dumb made-up ghost. I’ll do it, but I’d rather try that downhill again and go home. You don’t seriously think Logan’s going to make it all the way back, do you? I mean if we keep going? Look at him.”
I glanced back up the bridge.
Logan scrunched his shoulders every time a car passed him, leaning away, seeming to shrink into himself. He might have been crying, but I couldn’t see his face. “He’s tougher than you think,” I said.
John gave me a smirking nod. “All right, man, whatever you say. He’s got more stones than both of us, I’m sure. But he’s gonna whine all the way home, I promise.”
We watched Logan get back onto his bike and coast down the part of the bridge that wasn’t so steep. His eyes were red when he pulled up next to us, and his nose was running.
“Hey,” he said. “That was the coolest. You guys are fast.” His voice cracked and his eyes were wide. “We’re almost there. I can’t wait.”
“Yeah,” John said. “Need some new underwear?”
“Kiss my butt,” Logan said.
The dreams come every night now, and they are getting worse. I can’t focus on writing the novel I’m under contract for, so I’m writing the truth. This manuscript is just for me, a kind of therapy. A journey, I guess. I spoke to my editor and she suggested that I see someone about it, knowing I wouldn’t.
“I call editor,” she said yesterday. She knows I’m eccentric and becoming more so. Felicia probably thinks I’m just performing the author’s equivalent of character-acting. Believing my story so I can tell it right.
I finally spoke to Logan in VR, after pestering him for weeks. He hovered in front of me, wearing an impeccable blue suit and yellow tie, speaking with an equally perfect Oxford accent.
“William,” he said. “It’s great to see you after all these years. Even if it’s not in the flesh.”
“Hey, Logan,” I replied. “I hope this isn’t too weird.”
“No, no, not at all mate. I’ve been very busy, but I’ve always got time for an old friend.” In virtual reality, we faced each other. Behind him, floor to ceiling bookcases lined the walls of an intimate study, a massive wooden desk in front of him, a cracking fire burning in a stone fireplace at his back. We both knew that he wasn’t making time for an old fiend, because we weren’t friends anymore, merely people who once knew each other.
“I guess life’s been good,” I said, smiling at a man I did not know. He was tall, slim and square-jawed. I could see the Logan I’d known when I looked at him now, and I felt a certain kind of pride. Like maybe I’d known all along, and he became what he should have, and I had something to do with it. Which was preposterous.
“Indeed,” Logan said, with a magnanimous sweep of his hands. “I suppose I could say the same for you. I read one of your books.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“So,” Logan said, checking the gold watch on his wrist and arching his eyebrows, “why now, after all these years?”
“I sent a few letters after you moved,” I said.
“Hmm. I never got them. No worries.”
“Have you been having dreams, Logan? Anything strange. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve got to ask.”
“Not at all. Why?”
“Nothing tugging at you? Memories, visions, anything?”
“We haven’t spoken in decades, but let me tell you something,” Logan said, his voice dropping and becoming ice, like he’d rehearsed this conversation. “I always appreciated your friendship, but I hate the fact that you filled my head with nonsense. It caused me more pain than I’d care to admit. I’m thankful that I moved away from you, because you poisoned everyone around you. Truly, I was hoping you called for another reason; an apology, perhaps.”
“So, wait. You’re telling me you don’t think it happened?”
“Of course it didn’t. And, I know exactly what you mean when you say it. Look, I’m sorry your life isn’t quite what you thought it would be. And I’m sorry about Johnny. That’s how it goes, old chap, though. You can still do something great if you decide to. Your imagination is truly impressive. Always was.”
“So, you weren’t there at the hill? That’s, what, a construct of my mind?”
“What happened, then, if I made it all up?”
“Kids got hurt. And you made up a good story to explain it. And I believed it, like you did, I suppose, because that was easier than the truth. It took me years of therapy to figure that out.”
“So, you think I’m crazy, now, I guess? You don’t think about it anymore? There’s nothing happening now that makes you wonder whether or not I wasn’t telling a story?”
“Old friend,” Logan smirked, “you really should speak to a mental-health professional. I’d love to chat more, but I’ve got another VR meeting in thirty seconds. Feel free to call again, though.”
The screen went gray, and I yanked the set off my head. I knew we’d never speak again.
The ruins of slave quarters stretched for more than a mile along the plantation site. Each one was white, bleached with age, roofless, once smooth walls aging and crumbling beneath the Florida sun, the patina walls whispering with evil that erected those structures more than a hundred years ago. A few tourists walked around with pamphlets, muttering to themselves, pointing at this and that, smiling and laughing.
I was shattered.
There were too many. Too many buildings, too many tourists. Too many broken lives. This place tried to be a museum and a memorial, but I felt that it didn’t succeed. Generations of families died and lived on these grounds, stripped of their freedom and living secret lives in these wrecks, finding faith in what they could. There was a stain of evil, a reverberation, an echo clinging to the earth. I felt it in my soul.
That the original owner was a decent man, as slave holders go, was swallowed by the greater evil perpetrated here. I’d been raised to view slavery as abhorrent, a thing for which there is never an excuse, because it destroyed families and people, and stripping a human of freedom was the same thing as killing him, except worse, because a good man would endure bondage for the sake of his family and children, clinging to a thread of hope for them.
We walked away, like everyone else did.
Before this land belonged to Zebidiah Kingsley, Timucuan Indians lived here for thousands of years. They were killed off with the arrival of white men even before “Manifest Destiny” was a phrase of justification.
Vines hung onto the trail, thick and gnarled, the size of my wrist, and spider-webs caught the late-morning sun amidst the shadows, with Golden Orb Weavers the size of my palm hanging in the middle of ornate webs spanning ten feet. Live oak trees shaded the trail, a loving canopy, a tunnel, with Spanish moss weeping long and hanging low. In the scrub, squirrels chattered, birds twittered, and reptiles rustled among dry leaves. The sound of my breathing mixed with the crunch of my sneakers on twigs and the cries of birds, and there was a darkening.
The forest was dark and unfriendly, and sounds grew muffled; even my breathing didn’t sound the same. It was like I was underwater in a swimming pool, the way that sound gets distorted and seems father away than it is.
That’s when we saw the hill.
It was an anomaly. A sloping mountain rising from the woods that was only a mountain in the way that a landfill looks like natural phenomenon, but is actually Mt. Trashmore. It wasn’t huge in the way of an actual mountain, but it looked vast and scorched and out of place nonetheless.
A wooden sign with hand-written paint in faded red proclaimed “DO NOT ENTER.” The sign hung over an old chain-link fence rusted and beat into the ground.
“Woah,” I said.
“What the hell is that?” John said.
“I think we should leave now,” Logan said, voice cracking. “Go home.”
“I’m tired of following rules,” I said. “Let’s do this. This is a dumb sign, like every other dumb sign. Who cares?” I said that, and I wish I hadn’t.
“Right,” said Johnny. “Let’s do this.”
“No,” said Logan.
“You can wait here, if you want,” I said.
Johnny climbed over the fence in one easy move, and I followed him over. Logan huffed behind me, getting his shirt caught on the edges, muttering to himself the whole time.
We wandered into the dark tangled woods beneath the black hill. My arms burned with cuts from Devil’s Shoestring, nasty vines armed with needles which cut the skin and broke off inside, and saw-palmetto which raked wrist and face and drew blood.
We made it to the base of the hill, where the trees and scrub died, charred and crisp until nothing grew. There was an aura of dread about the place, a sense that we were violating something, walking where we should not tread, and there was a thrill in it, a shivering sort of danger which attracts and fascinates and dooms boys and men.
John was the first to reach the base of the hill, and he bounded up, his running shoes crunching on the blasted soil.
“Hey, this is sick,” he exclaimed. “This shouldn’t be here. But it’s awesome!”
I followed him, busting through the last brambles and webs, needing to climb that mountain of darkness because it was there. Adrenaline pumped through me and my heart hammered and the sky and the woods seemed to have a certain clarity, an odd sort of sharpened, jagged and dangerous tint to all of it.
“What are you waiting for?” John howled, scampering up the blasted, scoured hill.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Logan whined.
“See you at the top!” I hollered. I stepped onto the black sand, which wasn’t really sand, I saw. It was more like hardened ash. Cascades of it slid down the hill in my wake as I climbed. I slipped a few times, and had to throw my hands out to catch myself. Ahead, John kept climbing up.
The temperature dropped, as though we were on a real mountain and we were approaching the tree-line where the icy wind tore at anything alive.
John was already at the summit, hands on his knees and out of breath. “This is so cool,” he said. “Wait ’till you see this.”
I made it up to the top, clawing at the charred and shifting ground on the last steep bit. John offered me his hand, and I took it, hauling myself up to the apex. We straddled a pyramid, I saw, one with a blunt top.
We waited a few minutes for Logan to catch up. His nose was running and his eyes watered when he climbed the last few feet.
“Wow,” Logan said, attempting a brave smile. “This is too weird.”
“Got that right,” John replied. “This thing shouldn’t be here. Or at least, because it is here, people should know about it. Some kind of historic site, at least. Open to the people. What the hell is it?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
“Maybe some kind of Indian burial ground,” Logan offered. “Or one of those shell mounds, except different from the rest. Is it just me, or is it cold? And what happened to the sky?”
I looked up. The sky was wrong, dark and lowering the way it looked when a thunderstorm was about to unleash buckets of rain, but without the roiling clouds. Instead, we stood beneath a menacing charcoal, like a planetarium were the universe went one artificial color.
“Let’s go,” I said, my voice breaking from more fear than puberty. I felt small.
John, perhaps my hero and certainly the bravest of us, looked terrified. “This ain’t good,” he said. “I’m–” He took one half of one step.
John froze, one Nike shoe suspended above the slope, as though time itself stopped him, like a DVD on pause, like a video game character halted mid-stride because Mom is hollering to turn off the game, and you’d better take out the trash right then. John quit moving in a way that real people don’t quit moving.
He rose from the ground, still with his right-leg extended. He levitated. It couldn’t happen, but it did. Neither of his feet touched the ground, and he drifted up until his shoes were level with my head. His eyes rolled back in his head and just the whites showed and he shimmered with light, stark against the darkening sky.
“What the hell?” Logan screamed.
I probably screamed, too. I’d like to think that I didn’t, but I’m sure I did. I do know this, though: I ran.
I scrambled and slid down the hill, and Logan was right behind me. I ran through the scrub and thorns and webs and the sky was dark. My breathing seemed loud and my heart jackhammered in my chest and I shivered while I crashed through the dark woods.
Logan kept whining and whimpering, and I kept running, heedless of the cuts on my face and tears on my face and blood on my hands and arms.
We stumbled through the woods into a clearing dominated by a brick mansion with boarded-up doors and broken windows, a two-story home with a castle-like minaret.
The place was old and abandoned, and the cracked bricks crumbled from the walls. A murder of crows lined the roof top, cackling and jumping with nervous energy, and the air was cold beneath a sunless sky.
“Araggah! Help! Logan screamed.” Or maybe, it was me.
We plunged around the house, and kept running through the woods. And we wound up in front of that house again.
“NO!” Logan said.
“Keep running,” I said, cold and terrified.
We kept coming back to the house. I don’t know how many times it really happened. At least three times, we returned. It seemed like a hundred, a thousand, an eternity spent in hell. I was out of my head, because nothing made any sense.
The last time, though, the door to the house was open. I remember that much. Every time before, the door was boarded shut with plywood and two-by-fours. And then, we came back up the slope, the door hung open. I ran inside, and I’ll never know why I did that. Maybe, because I’d already gone around so many times, I had to do something different.
I stumbled through the house in the dark. I saw crude paintings on the walls in the anemic light, stick-figures scrawled red in violent poses, primitive skulls and images of human sacrifice. I felt the darkness pressing close and mean and I swear there were candles in that house, too, burning slow in the corners amidst the rubble and sagging timbers, and walls oozing blood.
I ran out the back door, the only place that seemed to offer hope. On the far-side of the house, three coffins, wooden and rotten, lay on the ground. I screamed then; I’m sure of that memory. I stood before them, and the woods around me were gone. The house behind me no longer existed. There were the coffins, and there was me.
I spun around, and Logan was gone, too. It was just me and the boxes. No sound, no light beyond the diffuse gray. I stumbled away, my steps awkward and thoughtless, and came back to the coffins. I tried over and over again to leave, yet I returned.
I stopped, finally, panting and quivering with fear. I opened one of the coffins. My friend Logan lay there inside, looking peaceful and wearing the clothes I’d seen him in the last time I saw him.
I didn’t know what to do. I cried, there in the woods with the wrong sky and the coffins and the wet-spot on my pants. I prayed. I ran again, and came back to the coffins, although this time, one of them was open, and Logan was in it, looking like he was sleeping, like I’d left him.
I opened the next coffin, feeling like I had no choice. Like a video game where you have to unlock the door to move on to the next level. The second coffin was empty. There was only one way out.
I walked to the third coffin, and I pulled off the lid, the smell of rotten wood and corruption strong in the frozen air.
I saw myself, dead and pale, lying stiff against the wood.
My eyes flew open. Not my own eyes, but the eyes of the corpse who was me, yet not-me, eyes white and uncaring. The corpse lashed out and gripped my arm with the quickness of a snake, fierce and strong, and it pulled me into the darkness.
When I opened my eyes again, blue lights flashed and radios squawked and people were yelling at me. That’s how I remember it. No one believed me then, and I’m not sure I believe it anymore, either. They never found Johnny. He was gone.
I’m going back. I left my friend there on that hill. I never saw him again, and folks made me believe I’d lost my mind, convinced me that monsters don’t exist and that it’s better to forget than remember. Sometimes it’s easier to burry what we cannot vanquish, yet often we find strength in the truth.
Maybe Johnny’s living in Malibu and living the good life now, and he simply ran away from home that day because he couldn’t take any more bruises. That’s what the police decided, and even my own folks didn’t believe my story. Johnny’s childhood was stolen from him before we left that morning years ago, and mine ended that day in the darkness.
Who know’s what I’ll find? Perhaps I’ll come back to that scorched hill and see myself again, and this time, everything will be different, and the truth will set me free.