The Endless Hallway

16 08 2010

[fiction]

Solomon Leechman failed to live up to his name that day at the bar, when he’d had too much to drink.  He made a friend and accepted a ride home.  The next thing he knew, he was lying in the dark on a cold stone floor, which probably contributed as much to his headache as the hangover.  Several hours passed in semi-consciousness, where he very much hated lying there, but he very much more hated the idea of standing.  Eventually, the sun finally found its way to him, after illuminating his prison several hours in advance, like a prolonged twilight.

Finally admitting awareness of his environment, he observed two things.  Firstly, he noticed that he was in a hallway without a ceiling, letting in the blare of direct sunlight from high above.  At least, if it was not a hallway, then it was an alley between two walls.  Next, he noticed that he was among two others, one man and one woman.  The other man came to his senses hours later, being, perhaps, more affectedly drugged than Solomon.  The woman awoke not long after that.  Upon inquiry, he found that the man’s name was Charles Bessemer, and the woman’s name was Mary Eddy.  Neither of them knew how they had gotten there.  Mary had only sipped a cup of tea on her front porch before winding up here.  Charles had taken such a cocktail of drugs that any of them could easily have been responsible for his unconsciousness.  In fact, he had taken them for that express purpose.  There was no apparent connection between any of them, other than that they were all lacking anything that might have been in their pockets previously, except for a used tissue and a pack of cigarettes with accompanying lighter.  This was immediately put to use by the man called Charles, who took a long drag and muttered, “Apparently, we’ve been robbed.  Well, at least we’ve still got fire.”

Solomon looked around at the cold stone walls and wondered what good a fire would do them here.  Perhaps if they had something to burn, they might have a comfort at night.  “Well, I suppose we’d better be making our way to the police,” he said, without confidence, as he peered down the seemingly interminable alley.  He looked both ways and then picked one at random, following it steadily for about ten minutes before doubting himself.  The others followed him for lack of any excuse to do otherwise.  He stopped in his tracks and looked back.  The way they had come stretched out indefinitely behind them, but the way before them was unchanged.  They might easily have remained in their original position, by all appearances, except for the fact that they knew that they had moved.  Solomon ran his fingers through his hair and said to himself, “Man, what a long alley.”  They continued for a few minutes more, accelerating a little with every passing minute.  When the end of the alley continued to elude them, they broke into a trot.  The trot became a run, and the run developed into a mad dash.  When Solomon finally could run no further, he stopped dead in his tracks and panted, staring down the hellishly interminable lane.  He looked back and found that he had lost his friends.  The insanity of the imprisonment seemed so much the worse without companionship that he panicked and ran back the way he had come, until he reached Charles and Mary, who had given up the chase before him.

Mary sat against the wall and hugged her knees.  Charles smoked another cigarette and gazed down the alley.  Solomon kept looking up at the sky, with the sun now out of sight, wondering if there might be some way to climb over the wall.

“Listen, man,” said Charles, irritably, “This blasted hall can’t go on forever.  Everything has an end.”  He paused to think about it, glanced up and then reconsidered.  “No way, man, we didn’t just get taken into some parallel universe.  This thing has an end, and we’re going to find it.”

“Are you sure we’re not just dreaming the whole thing?” asked Mary.

“You want me to kick some sense into you?” barked Charles, coldly, “I’m not dreaming, and neither are you.”

They continued on down the way between the walls for the rest of the day, until the light faded into dusk, and then the real fear began to set in.  Charles burned through the rest of his cigarettes for the sole joy of having a flame.  Solomon sat staring at the stars, comforting himself with the one opening to their prison.  Mary sat with her back to the wall and cried herself to sleep.

“You know,” mused Charles, “We’ve been marching down this alley all stinking day.  We must have come several miles, yet.  We’ve encountered neither corner nor door, so we can rule out the possibility that either wall surrounds some other area, which means that this probably isn’t the space between two properties, and those aren’t just walls at the edge of someone’s estate.  We’ve been doing the only thing we know, which is to follow this thing in one direction, in some hope of reaching the end.  I figure this is probably a canal of some kind, which means that the top of the wall is actually at ground level.  Otherwise, I can’t see any reason to build two such long walls.  I mean, sooner or later someone’s going to want to cross from one side to the other.  There’s got to be a bridge, or a tunnel or something, eventually.”

Solomon kept looking at the stars.  Cool air drifted down to him from above, which was about the only comfort to be found in that otherwise comfortless place.  At least he had fresh air.  At least he could see an opening above him, if nothing else.  He stood to his feet and called out to the opening above.  Nothing answered him.

Charles rebuked him, saying, “Save it, man.  No one hears you, alright?  Now, I have an idea.  Just wait here.  Don’t move until I get back.”  Then, he walked off into the darkness.

Solomon sat down next to Mary, attempting to comfort her as best he could, which wasn’t very much.  They passed a long sleepless night together, with no event except the movement of the stars and Solomon’s occasional calling out to them.  If they had been in a pit, then their circumstances might not have seemed as dire, but this interminable hall gave it just a devilish enough intrigue to make the place unbearable.  At least a pit was normal.  This was something out of Hell.

In the morning, Solomon and Mary started walking down the alley again, wondering constantly whether they were moving forward, or whether hey were merely retracing their steps.  He resolved not to make the mistake again.  Charles had not returned.  The passageway had swallowed him up with sheer distance.  Somehow or other, he would reach an end, and so would they, if they just continued on.  When darkness fell that night, Solomon removed his shoe and placed in on the ground, pointing in their direction of travel.  At least, if they needed several day’s journey, they would be traveling in the same direction each day and not undoing the previous day’s work.  They spent the night without conversation.  Whatever her thoughts on the matter, she wasn’t sharing.  By the third day, he knew that they would perish without food and water.  Somewhere in this waterless canal, there must be at least a puddle, or they were sure to die.  Mary was an inconsolable wreck.  He had to urge her every step of the way.  When at last they reached a stand of water in their way, probably a slightly low spot in the dry channel, he fell to his face and sucked at what little was there.  To continue this journey might be death of dehydration, but if they remained where they were, they were also doomed.  Forward was the most hopeful thing in the universe.  They stayed at the puddle for an hour longer, and then they continued.

In the distance, barely seen in the darkening dusk, they perceived the figure of a man walking.  Solomon ran toward him, and when the man heard him, he also began to run.  The other man was the first to stop running.  It wasn’t until the other man fell to his knees and roared with agony at the top of his voice that Solomon realized whom he was running at.  It was Charles, finally returning to them after so much time.  He trotted the remaining distance and called to him, “Charles!  You came back!  What’s wrong, man, did you reach the end?”

Charles wept like a baby and said through his tears, “Shut up, you fool!  I didn’t come back!  I didn’t come back, you ass!”

Solomon ignored the slight and inquired, “What do you mean, you didn’t come back?”

“Don’t you get it?” Charles cried, “I went full circle!  I’ve been walking nonstop since I left you people!  This thing is just one great big circle!  There’s no end!  There’s no way out!”  He gasped for breath, “It took me two days to get around it.  If I went two miles per hour, then it must have been ninety-six miles around.  But, wait!  You were travelling in the other direction!  That means it could be even twice that!  What hole have we fallen into?  This isn’t a channel!  This is like a moat around some gargantuan castle!”

After much hugging and weeping, they decided that their best option was to retreat back to the puddle, where at least they had water.  That night, Charles slept like a log, while Solomon lay awake, staring at the sky, hallucinating frequently of people looking down at them.  Once, he thought for sure that a man poked his head out from above them, and he leapt to his feet and yelled at the face until Charles knocked his legs out from under him and told him to shut up.

The next morning, they sat around the puddle and stared at their respective sources of comfort.  Charles stared at the flame of his lighter.  Solomon stared at the open sky, and Mary stared at the back of her eyelids.  Charles was the first to speak, “Well, at least there’s some comfort in knowing that this isn’t a passageway that goes on forever in both directions.  If it’s a circle, then it might as well be a pit.  We’ve been in a very large pit, wandering its outer edge.  There’s nothing too diabolical about that.”

Solomon found no comfort in the thought.  Knowing the limits of his enclosure only heightened his fear, because that meant that there was no way out.  Charles might have been comforted by the taming of its magic, but Solomon was terrified at the setting of its outer limit.  He would have preferred a magical hall with no end, because at least in magic there was some hope of something totally unexpected happening and providing a way out.  For a while, he even argued that it really was a magic hall, and that it really was straight.  He imagined that the magic had caused Charles to reverse directions, or to come back from the other end without actually travelling in a circle.  In the end, though, Charles’ rationality won out.  Yet, there still stood the matter of getting out.  Charles, forever the thinker, worked on various means of escape, such as climbing on each other’s shoulders, climbing the stones, or using a belt buckle to carve a hole.  In the end, though, they were not tall enough to scale it, the masonry was too smooth to climb, and the belt buckle idea, though theoretically possible, would take more days than they could survive.  Even at that, if they were in a circle with no bridge over them, then they might accidentally find themselves inside of the circle with not one but two walls between them and freedom.

Solomon continued to shout at the stars, and Charles continued to yell at him to stop.  “No one hears you, okay?”

“Someone might eventually hear me,” Solomon argued.

“What’s going to make that happen?  No one has heard you yet, and you have no reason to expect that to change.  The stars can’t hear you.  Walk a few feet down the way and scream, and if that doesn’t work, then walk a few feet more and do it again.  Eventually, I’ll be rid of you, and maybe I’ll be able to spend my last days in peace!”

The irony of the situation was that while Charles had brought the hall down from the mysterious to the understandable, he had brought the outer world from the understandable to something rather mysterious.  There was no explanation as to how a trench, or hall, could follow such a huge circle without impacting the lives of other people.  There was no reason it should even exist, and there was no reason why anyone should make it.  Nevertheless, there really was no sign of interference from without, and there was almost no reason to believe that the pit was made by humans, except that it did not likely make itself.  Solomon, however, who had originally clung to the idea of a mysterious hallway, was the last to give up on hope for outside help.  Someone had obviously made the pit, or hall, which meant that human civilization was not only near, but the passage was actually a part of that civilization, somehow.  The walls were built by people, therefore there was a chance of meeting more people.

Solomon and Charles argued about the matter until Mary burst out with her first words in more than two days, “Shut up!  Just shut up!  Keep your beliefs to yourselves.  You want to climb the wall and save yourself, then do it.  You want someone to climb down from the wall and save you, then let them.  Just stop talking about it!”  Then she closed her eyes, plugged her ears and imagined herself in a happier place.

So Solomon continued down the hall, shouting every so often for help from above, to people that he could not see.  It was the only chance for hope.  He wasn’t content to make the best of his short life in the pit.  He wasn’t content with imagining it all away.  If someone outside didn’t hear his cries, then there was no hope, but if he did not cry out, then there never could be hope.  Several times, he hallucinated that people were looking down on him.  With time, he began to imagine even wilder things than people looking down on him.  Then, startlingly, a voice called down to him, saying, “Hello, now how did you get down there?”  He looked up at the smiling ruddy round face at a man, and for a moment, the real thing seemed stranger than the hallucinations ever were.  He stared transfixed at the stranger before he could mumble something only halfway intelligible in return.  When he finally came to grips with the reality of the situation, he wanted to run back and get the others, but then the stranger might go away, and Solomon might not find the spot again.  When the face did disappear, he sat down, afraid to leave the spot, which was rewarded nearly an hour later by the lowering of a very tall ladder.

“Sorry it took so long,” said the jolly man, “but the shed is some distance from here and I had a dandy of a time finding a ladder.”

Solomon scaled the ladder quickly, afraid that the dream might fade.  At the top, he discovered that the passage was a deep trench.  Some distance away was a small building, and the surrounding terrain was quite flat.

“You’re lucky I came by when I did.  They’re closing down the place, and I was the last to leave.  They dug this monstrosity to be an atom smasher, only the funding got cut before it was finished.  They gutted the workings and sold it as scrap, but there’s no money in filling holes, so they left it.  I can’t imagine what you were doing in there,” said the rescuer.

“An atom smasher?” Solomon wondered.  Suddenly, it was all making a little more sense.  The pit contained a massive circle of piping for shooting subatomic particles in a circle, faster and faster, in an attempt at breaking them apart and discovering the origins of the universe.  People had quit trying to reach beyond the universe to the one who made it, preferring instead to live and die within it.  The flat earth with mysterious limits had become a circular prison devoid of mystery, and the ones who shattered the mystery devoted themselves to abolishing any mystery that they could not shatter.  It did not continue in all directions, but it went in a circle.  There was no point in calling for help from the outside, because no one had heard, and no one would ever hear.

While some people, like Charles, tried to defeat the mystery understood by Solomon, others, like Mary, tried to defeat the prison created by people like Charles, preferring instead to take refuge in the ever subjective philosophy of their own imaginations.  If Solomon was pre-modern, Charles was modern and Mary was postmodern.  Charles, at least, had a great deal of understanding the nature of the confinement.  Solomon understood the nature of his salvation.  Mary feared all understanding, and therefore she had none.  In the end, only the wisdom of Solomon could save them.

Perhaps, then, Solomon outlived his first mistake by living up to his name in the end.

[/fiction]

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