People prance around like their time is unlimited, not aware it can be cut short at any given moment. Time isn’t even real. It’s a construct we invented. But that doesn’t mean we have control over it. Sometimes I forget with all the delicate, frilly linings and cupcake frosting of this world, that there is still raw, unforgiving power beneath the dirt we have perched ourselves atop. For all the pumpkin lattes, participation trophies, and ergonomic office chairs, there is one thousand times that in breathing, heaving, power. Waiting. Hiding.
There was nowhere this was more apparent than in my hometown. Specifically, my house. Last one at the end of the bumpy road, almost wide enough to fit two cars side by side. A road so narrow, it required one motorist to be kind enough to veer to the side, put their tire in the dirt, and let the other pass.
Taking a left out of my driveway led you up my welterweight road and onto a street that was constructed with the idea of having multiple cars on it at once. In two minutes, that street led you into the town center. Cafes, a custom cupcake shop, a farmer’s market, and so many quaint shops indicative of a small town, you could completely understand why tourists flocked here... but next to no one lived here.
Taking a right out of my driveway meant you were not driving, you were on foot. Unless you were an idiot. Dirt turned to grass, turned to longer grass, turned to the woods. I’d been into the woods a few times as kid, to retrieve a football, baseball, frisbee, etc. But 10 steps into those woods and I was immediately feeling uneasy. Frightened, but also as if I was in danger of being sucked in. As if the trees had a hold on me that would only intensify the more I ventured in.
I saw the trees in my dreams many times throughout my childhood. They’d call to me in a sing-song voice, “Josh-u-a, Josh-u-a.” These nightmares were always so chilling, that I’d rip myself from my sleep and stay awake until the sun came up. I could see the trees from my bedroom window. After a nightmare, I stayed with my eyes glued on them, never trusting them. When I was 13, I stopped having the dreams altogether. Then, they started again on my 17th birthday. I had dreams of the trees every night since I turned 17… nine nights in a row. And not one of them was scary.
So, on year 17 and day 10 of my life, I walked into the woods. The pull of the woods was there, but it was less intimidating. I had the urge to stop just a few steps into the woods, but I buried that urge below every sense of reason I had accumulated over the years and never broke my stride.
And if I ever doubted that gravitational pull I swore I felt from the woods, if I ever had brushed it off as ‘just something kids concoct in their simple, little heads’, I would have realized how dead-wrong I was immediately. I didn’t know these woods at all, but something was pulling me in. My body moved normally, my legs and arms swung as they always did, but a force was leading me.
I changed direction, I turned sharp at trees, turned again at rock formations, all like it was second nature. Moving through a clearing, I saw the sun speeding across the sky. The moon and the dark sky chased it… only to then be chased by the sun and the periwinkle skies dotted with fluffy, marshmallow clouds… and then the moon and her gang again. The sun and moon kept a circular chase over and over, my stomach rose in my body like when you drop on a rollercoaster. My body was weightless, yet my feet stayed on the dirt as I marched onward. The air got wet, a raging river rushed only past my eardrums. It was deafening. I left the clearing, and passed brittle, dry tree after brittle, dry tree. The leaves and twigs crunched and snapped under my shoes like a thousand eggshells. My skin was perfectly dry.
And then the mouth of the cave was right in front of my face. A perfect half-oval carved into rock. As I stepped inside, I regained the power of my own free-will… but where else was I going to go? Of course, I was going into this cave.
Deeper and deeper into the cave, I sunk and sunk in elevation. Light and heat disappeared together gradually until neither was existent at all. And then suddenly, immaculate light shone in the distance. I advanced towards the light dead ahead and reached a smooth wall of rock that gleamed bright.
A tree branch slowly swung into my eyeline and landed on my shoulder, holding me still. I looked up. The light was so intense in front of me, and the darkness was so deep behind me, the silhouette of something massive was all I could make out. Bark-like skin, earth tone colors, and a gaping mouth.
“Finalmente has llegado.” A gruff voice spoke from 10 feet above my head.
“Wh-what?” I didn’t recognize these words.
“Tu di dawiyê de li vir î.” The voice changed ever so slightly. It grumbled. The floor trembled. “Crveni.“
I looked to the wall. I looked back.
"Quello rosso.” It grumbled. It moved and stretched, the sound of bark twisting and snapping. I shook my head in disbelief of what was happening. Whatever was on my shoulder pressed down harder. Something jabbed sharply into my shoulder blade.
“The red one.” I heard it say. My eyes popped open. I looked to the wall. I squinted and could see all of the light was emanating from several different beautiful glowing gems. I saw one was an extravagant red color. I pointed to it.
“Yes, the red one is yours.” The thing on my shoulder relaxed. “You must understand, its power is incredible. It responds to the touch of life.”
“The—the touch of life? My life?” I managed to utter to the 18-foot giant which still kept an appendage resting on my shoulder.
The tree branch left my shoulder and reached out, clasping the red gem. Branches wound around it, completely encompassing it, and it was pulled free from the wall. The branch moved back towards me. A larger branch descended from above, pressed onto the branch holding the red gem, and applied pressure until—SNAP! A round ball of twisted twigs fell to the ground, the red gem pressed inside, half of it exposed. I crouched down. In it’s entirety, it was the size of a strawberry. I reached out.
“It responds to the touch of life.” Echoed from above me. As I grabbed this thing, I was careful to only touch the twigs. I placed it carefully into my pocket, the red gem facing down. I looked back up... and I was alone.
And the light was gone.
And everything was getting hotter and hotter.
And a cyclone of wind whooshed around me with intense speed.
And I was in my bedroom.
And my Mom was knocking on my bedroom door. “Josh! Get up! You’re going to be late for school!”
I looked down at myself, I was wearing the same clothes. I looked out the window. Little Dave across the street was waiting for the bus, holding a toy light saber, swinging it around like he was a tiny, little Jedi. The leaves fell onto the pavement. A lot of burnt oranges and deep reds. The gem! I reached into my pocket. I felt the circular bundle of twigs. I turned it over in my hands, nearing my fingertips towards the tip where the gem was. I located it and pressed my index finger to it. It was the smoothest feeling I’d ever known, ice cold to the touch.
I continued to watch out the window. The leaves continued to fall. The wind swirled. Dave held a position like he was preparing to spring into action. His dedication to holding a position still was impressive for a nine-year-old.
I don’t know. I touched the gem, nothing seemed to happen.
I touched it again. I felt no different. Leaves continued falling. Wind continued swirling. Little Dave started swinging away again. I heard my Mom scream. I dashed out of my room.
I ran into the kitchen and my Mom was whacking a small, out of control flame in a frying pan with a dish towel. I grabbed a lid and placed it over the frying pan. The flame died. Mom breathed a sigh of relief.
“I don’t know what happened. I was cooking and then—then all of a sudden the flame was there.” She explained in utter disbelief.
“It’s alright,” I comforted her. She was quite distressed. “It happens. Hey, I’m gonna head to school.”
“When did you get up and get dressed?” Mom looked at me in confusion.
“Uh, earlier.” Yeah, good one, Josh. You’re sure to fool anyone with that excuse.
I walked off in order to remove myself from the situation and also to hide my guilty face from my Mom. What was I supposed to say? ‘Well, Mom, after I met the big tree-man who gave me the red rock wrapped in his twig-fingers that he broke off, I apparently took a tornado back here and skipped the entire night last night.’
‘Uh, earlier’ was the better option, by far.
Driving to school I noticed every house I passed was decked out in Halloween decorations. I know people decorated early at times, but this was late September. Let’s at least get into October, guys.
I rolled into the school parking lot. I zombied through the motions, grabbed backpack, shut car door, locked it, and strolled towards the school. As I neared the school, I saw our big electronic sign. Dim red letters attempted to entice with flickers and flashes as they transitioned from mundane message to mundane message.
BASKETBALL TRY-OUTS NEXT WEEK.
I saw the beginnings of Halloween decorations plastered on the windows of the school. Orange and black streamers hung in the front door. I went into the woods 10 days after my birthday. Which would have made that day September 25th. 18 days ago? I worry this day was going to be extremely strange.
But it wasn’t. It was the same as every day. Algebra 2, boring. And I hardly had to pay attention because in all honesty, I fucking rocked at all math. English, bland as unbuttered toast. Chemistry, semi-entertaining, thank goodness, because I needed to actually pay attention in there. Study hall with nothing to do so I drew pictures of trees in my notebook.
Strolled through the halls towards the cafeteria for my lunch, when I came across the expensively-clad, most unfunny assholes in the school. I already knew exactly what they were going to say and do.
“Josh Lizard! What rock did you crawl out from underneath today?!” Douche Face #1 chortled as he spoke his COMPLETELY ORIGINAL joke. #2 and #3 laughed at his FRESH MATERIAL. As they walked by, each one punched me in the shoulder. Every day, with these three. I was going to need shoulder surgery by the end of the schoolyear.
I turned and watched them as they strolled on, chuckling their stupid heads off. I slid my hand into my pocket. I felt the twigs. I turned them over in my hand. Oh, if only this red gem could do something, I would love for it to happen right now. Maybe shoot a blast of fire out at them or turn their clothes into a swarm of angry bees. I placed my index finger on the smooth gem and suddenly, everyone stopped dead in their tracks.
Every single student in the hallway, frozen. Mid-step, examining lockers, reaching for books. I heard the clatter of several pens falling to the floor, then a textbook dropping with all its weight. No one was moving. I carefully treaded through the crowd of students, frozen like cardboard cutouts.
I approached the three douchebags all mid-step, hands embracing one another in total douchebag glory. Well, this was just fucking perfect!
I crouched down and examined their shoes. As stupid as they all were, I half-expected them to be wearing Velcro. But they all got nice long laces. I untied the shoes and roped them all together, knotting, double knotting, triple knotting. Oh yes, they were securely tied together.
I stood up and backtracked to my original spot. The stage was set. I reached my hand back into the pocket and searched for the red gem. As I tapped it, life began again. Most people continued on unfazed, but the three douchebags got caught into and accidental battle of lower extremity tug of war. Several shouts of shock and disbelief echoed as they flailed and fluttered and lost all balance and tumbled to the ground in a well-dressed, yet very unintelligent heap of shame and expensive clothing.
Every student in the hallway burst out laughing as they struggled to pull themselves up and figure out what in the world just happened to them.
“Hey guys!” I called out. “What rock you trying to crawl under?!”
Everyone burst out into even louder laughter. The faces of these idiots turned as red as the gem in my pocket. The red gem. My new best friend.
School could not end soon enough. I rushed to my car and planned to speed home so I could see what I could really accomplish with this gem. As I sped off the schoolgrounds, I realized my exuberant mood called for classic teenage celebration food.
To the convenience store for chips and soda!
I perused the shelves in the town convenience store and came away with a bag of chips, barbecue-something-or-other… and grabbed a soda of unnatural bright green color. I headed to the counter and the half-asleep clerk rung me up. The total was $6.27.
I opened my wallet and was presented with the saddest sight. One single five dollar a bill. Oh no, I didn’t even think to check what I had for cash. Of course, I had my card, but that was only supposed to be for emergencies. Ugh, what do I do? Put something back? Chips with no soda? Soda and no chips? This was a real Sophie’s Choice. And this was about to get really embarrassing no matter what I did. I pulled out the five-dollar bill and set it on the counter.
“I think I got a few more bucks in my pocket,” I said casually as I reached into my pants pocket. And I felt the twigs. And I turned them over. And there was the smooth gem on my index finger. I looked around to see if it worked.
The clerk was mid-blink, so he looked to be fully asleep. Several other customers were frozen in unnatural stances, absorbed in unnatural trances. Nobody could move but me.
Look, this wasn’t a big deal. $6.27. The convenience store wouldn’t declare bankruptcy. The world would go on. No one would die. And I’d leave the five-dollar bill there at least. I grabbed my chips and my soda and walked for the door. I stopped. What was the point of leaving the five-dollar bill? In fact, that was sort of like leaving evidence to this strange encounter. I stepped back and swiped my money off the counter. Need to leave without a trace.
I exited the convenience store and waited until I got back into my car to tap the red gem again. I saw customers moving through the windows again. Time to head out.
I got stuck at the town’s main intersection for about 40 minutes. A bad accident right in the middle of everything. A white car, all smashed, a forest green SUV that looked like it kissed a bulldozer. I couldn’t help but think it looked familiar. But then again, it was a forest green SUV in New England. It’s not like that was a rare occupant in these parts.
I finally pulled into our driveway and my Mom pulled in just behind me.
“You’re just getting home?” We asked each other in unison.
“Big accident at Peaslee and Amherst.” We answered each other in unison. That was one of the problems with living in a small town. If there was an accident at ‘The Big Intersection’ then everyone was going to be late.
We headed into the house and my Dad was shuffling through the kitchen in his bathrobe carrying a glass of orange juice.
“Feeling any better, honey?” Mom asked as Dad made a disagreeing noise from his throat and shuffled off to the bedroom. Tissues fell out of his pockets onto the floor. Mom sprayed the wake of his sick with disinfectant, trying to make its presence vanish. I headed off to my room so I could marvel at my new toy. This was a gem of a gem, I was going to be having a lot of fun with this.
The next morning, my Dad was awake early, dressed in his work clothes and looking like a sweaty garbage sculpture of himself. Mom pleaded with him to not go to work.
“Isaac told me that Brown’s been taking a real issue with the time off I’ve been taking since I’m out of sick days,” Dad explained through a stuffy nose. “I have to go in, I could get fired.”
“Well, at least take some medicine with you,” Mom pulled open a cabinet.
“We’re all out.” Dad headed for the door. “I’ll pick some up on my lunch. Love you, bye. See ya, Josh!”
As I left for school, I noticed little Dave standing at the end of his driveway waiting for the bus. One hand clutched his light saber, the other was in a sling. Behind him in the driveway was a forest green SUV, smashed in the front. Damn, that must have been Dave and his Dad at the intersection. I waved to him. With his limited resources, he managed to just wave his light saber at me.
My stupid classes crawled by at an obnoxiously slow pace. The bell finally rang at 12:13, which took days to get to. My lunch period was about to begin. As I strolled towards the cafeteria, of course, here came the three douchebags. They spotted me with hateful eyes.
“Hey, Josh!” #1 called me out. “I don’t know what you did yesterday, but you did something!”
“I made you three tools trip over yourselves? Alright.” Hand in the pocket. Turned the twigs over and readied the gem.
All three of them charged me at once. I waited calmly for the first swing and tapped the gem. #1 with his outstretched arm, #2 was winding up behind him, #3 was closing in. I gave #1 a jab to the ribs, #2 got a pop in the eye, and #3, I shoved to the floor. I positioned myself off to the side and tapped the gem.
Groans of sudden pain as #1 swung at nothing and #2 clutched his eye and with my advantageous position, I gave each of them a good punch to the face and knocked them onto their asses. I touched the gem again. Now, it was play time.
I took my time… because I had time. Pulling pants down around ankles, pulling underwear up as high as it would go, yanking shirts over heads. Once I was satisfied, I pressed the gem again, and it was total embarrassment for these kids. They didn’t even know what to do with themselves, but maybe they’d take the hint that step one should be to leave me alone.
I went right home after school to find my Mom and Dad both in the kitchen having a serious discussion. As I walked in, I caught my Dad saying, “What can I do? He fired me.” They saw me and rather than explaining, they shuffled off to the bedroom and shut the door. But I could still make out some words being spoken… because I was eavesdropping.
“I don’t know what happened… at the drug store, getting medicine… all of a sudden, I’m late… time just got away… he fired me…”
Hm, curious. I wonder when Dad’s lunch break normally is. I turned the news on and plopped myself down on the couch. Could this have been my doing?
“In addition to the plane that crashed while landing at 12:15 in Chicago…” The newscaster announced. “…there was also a flight landing in Atlanta at 12:15 that suddenly skidded off the runway and crashed right into the tower killing hundreds…”
I clicked the TV off. I rushed to my room and shut the door.
Alright, this gem is too powerful. I think this was my doing. This is absolutely horrible! Am I responsible for the deaths of hundreds? For my Dad losing his job? This thing is not a toy. I should probably stop using it altogether… after this one last time.
If my Dad lost his job, we weren't going to have any money coming in. I needed to do something, something to tide my family over financially until Dad got work again. I could make up some lie about how I got the money. Who cares? I just needed to figure something out. What could I do?
The next day, my dull school day inched past me in slow motion yet all I remembered is a high-speed blur of Math, English, confusing Science terms, and a sad lunch. No one touched me in the hallways and finally, I was out.
I drove to the next town over because it was much bigger. There must be something there I could do. And then I came across the bank. And the tan Corolla sitting across the street with the two suspicious guys sitting inside it.
A couple taps of the gem and a few smart placements of my ear near their car revealed their plan to me. They were staking the bank out. The Brinks truck would come Friday at 10 A.M. and they were going to rob it. Looks like we were going to be splitting it three ways.
I should have felt nervous on this Friday morning. Even with my gem, this was still a scary situation. But I had no nerves, instead a sadness hung in the air. Perhaps, created by my Dad’s bad mood that he spread through the house. I caused this. I was going to fix this. I said my goodbyes to Mom and Dad and pretended to leave for school.
Instead, I staked out the two guys staking the bank out. They were parked on the street, I was 50 feet away in a parking lot. I waited for 10 A.M. to arrive the same as everyone else. I couldn’t make it arrive any sooner. I had no control over that.
The truck rolled up and the two guys made their move. I watched in awe as they quickly disarmed the cops and busted the truck open. They unloaded bags of money into their car. I needed to find the right opportunity, but I needed to minimize the time in which I was using this gem, so as to minimize any indirect casualties, whether by car or plane or whatever.
As the two guys tossed the last of the bags into their car, I leapt out of my car. As I did so, the two guys were alerted to the sound I made. I placed my index finger on the gem in a hurry. These two guys were staring towards my direction, but not right at me. This would have to do.
I sprinted towards their car. Hundreds of frozen people in the town littered the sidewalks. A car went racing by with a statue of a man in the driver’s seat and crashed into a telephone pole. Shit. I needed to be quicker. I reached the tan Corolla and snagged one of the heavy bags. I hoisted it over my shoulder and raced back to my car.
More cars zoomed by. I heard several crashes, the sound of metal twisting, glass shattering. I reached my car and flung the bag into the back seat. This had been too long already. Hand in my pocket. Turned the twigs in my hand. Finger on the gem. Suddenly, life was in motion again.
The two guys spun towards me in disbelief. They scanned the back of their car and noticed they’re short a bag.
“What the hell did that kid just do?!” One of them screamed.
“Let it go, Nash! Let’s just go!” The other one urged him.
The one called Nash whipped a pistol out and pointed it at me. My hand hovered next to my pocket. I stood frozen next to my car, my door wide open.
“Hey kid! I don’t know what you did, but you need to bring that bag back right now!” His pistol stayed trained on me.
“Nash! We got plenty! Let’s go!”
I didn’t have many options, but the quickest one had to be the gem. I just needed to use it once more and then drive far enough away from these guys. I swear, it would be the last time I used it. I readied my hand. Nash readied his trigger finger.
I jammed my hand in my pocket and reached for the gem. As I touched the red gem, I heard a loud BANG. And then I felt warmth spreading through my chest and I collapsed backwards.
As my arm flailed backwards, the gem flew out of my hand and landed on the pavement behind me, rattling around on the gravel. My breath shortened. The warmth was spreading all over, it was becoming overwhelming. It was pressing me down hard. I looked around.
A man, perfectly still, with his pistol pointed in my direction. His friend frozen, in mid-scream. Pedestrians stuck on the sidewalks as if they were just an extension of the cement. People in a nearby parking lot, watched on with horror in their faces that didn’t vanish. All life had stopped. No one was moving. No one but me.
I located the red gem, four feet from my reach. As I made a last-ditch effort to reach for it, the warmth pressed me down harder. It got hotter. It burned me. I had no power left in my body to even move a muscle. The gem laid out of my reach, on the ground.
My eyes were heavy. They began to close. I had no control over my eyelids as they betrayed me. I sometimes forgot about that raw, unforgiving power beneath the dirt.
A power so strong… it stopped the world.