The year I turned twelve, the final weekend of September was unseasonably warm, so Jay and I went camping in the woods down by the old railroad tracks. In the afternoon, we horsed around, threw stuff off the Lime Creek railroad bridge, and hiked through the tunnel.
After dark, we sat by the fire munching roasted corn (liberated from Exley’s field), sipping two Budweisers (cunningly pilfered from my dad, and still slightly cold), and talking about the Steelers. We treated it like a last opportunity; we knew that as we got older, we’d spend our weekends in other ways, and in other company.
The fire still blazed when I woke, jerked out of a sound sleep by footsteps in the gravel underlying the tracks. I barely made out a male figure walking past, not paying us, or our fire, any mind. I sat up and watched him continue down the tracks, stumbling occasionally in the moonless dark but never slowing. The only sounds were Jay’s snoring, the crackling of the fire, and the stranger’s receding footfalls.
I set off after him, pacing him for a hundred yards before I even realized what I was doing. Even in those days, approaching a stranger in the woods was a bad idea; but this was no junkie or drunk, no skulking vagrant. This man had a destination, and I had to see.
I tried keeping quiet, even tried matching my steps to his, but I quickly lost the cadence. He never turned around. In a moment of insane bravery, I even called out to him, wincing as my voice filled the empty night. He didn’t flinch, only kept walking.
I began jogging, finally drawing even with him and getting my first good look. He was black, the first black person I’d ever seen outside of TV. He looked ancient to my young eyes, but he was probably only fifty; he wore a grey suit that had seen better days, muddy at the cuffs and torn at the knees. His face was as calm as a pond in August.
Across the Lime Creek bridge we went, and into the tunnel. I could only feel along the damp, mossy walls. The stranger, now invisible, never missed a step. When we finally emerged into the starlight, he paused momentarily, then left the tracks and entered the woods, paying no heed to the hindering undergrowth. I followed, taking more care, but still keeping up.
I’d lost track of time, but after some interval, the man suddenly broke into a run. The thorns tore at his pants. When I caught up again, I almost ran into him. He was standing in an almost perfectly circular clearing, staring at…
Something. There is no word. Terms like apparition, vision, or mirage only skirt the issue. It might have been a doorway; it seemed bigger on the inside than on the outside. It filled the entire clearing and was painfully brilliant, but illuminated its surroundings not at all. I stood, transfixed, as the man walked toward it, a miniscule black silhouette against its immense brightness. He passed through it and was gone.
I tried to get closer and couldn’t. I was scared, of course. Before me was something in its primal state; whether pure goodness or utter evil, absolute beauty or sheer hideousness, I couldn’t say. I only knew I was seeing the essence of something that I had heretofore only experienced in a diluted form, filtered through an imperfect world and perceived by flawed senses.
If it was good, why did it offer no comfort? If evil, why was I unharmed?
Fear aside, I had to know. I dropped to my knees and clutched at the ground, trying to pull myself forward. I yanked up fistfuls of weeds, but made no progress. I tore and kicked and clawed, but finally sagged, frustrated. I realized that it wasn’t fear that kept me away. Though there were no signs and I heard no voices, I knew: whatever this was, it was not for me.
It vanished moments later without a sound. I lay there, aching, until dawn, then returned to the camp and sat, idly stirring the embers until Jay woke up. I told him nothing. We left. I’ve never been back.
When I was ten, a guy put his van in the ditch in front of my Uncle Andy’s house. Andy winched him out, only later mentioning the guy’s demeanor—distant, maybe even high—and his Utah plates. He didn’t speculate on what a stoner from Utah was doing in northern Pennsylvania. Where I grew up, strangers don’t worry us; it’s our neighbors we don’t trust.
The next night, some partiers found the van on the Lime Creek bridge, out of gas. The stoner’s body lay on the rocks below. The cops figured he had been about to piss off of the bridge and lost his balance.
Three years before that, the body of a teenage girl was found in that same creek. She had tried to cross at a swift place and drowned. She’d been reported missing in Brooklyn, New York, a month earlier. No one knew why she’d left or where she’d been headed, but judging by the condition of her clothes, she’d taken the hard way.
There are thousands of people—in this country alone—whose whereabouts are totally unaccounted for; no signs of violence, no reason to leave. I know what happened to them.
They were called.
They drove, walked, or hitched all the way to that clearing and vanished from this world forever. And the only ones we yokels noticed were those who didn’t quite make it.
Are they the damned, or the lucky few? I couldn’t say then, and I don’t know now.
I just know that every night, after I check on the kids and see my wife off to sleep, I lie next to her, awaiting my own dreamless slumber, hoping that tomorrow will be the day I hear the call.
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