Probably Sort-of Safe
The story so far:
And now…Chapter 6
It took a week for Lim to muster up the courage to speak to the group. He knew them all individually and was on generally friendly terms with each, except for that little girl who tended to bite things. But together, combined, the group was a brick wall of potential embarrassments that he did not know if he could scale.
It would have been easier if Charlie was still around. Charlie could wade into any group and fit in. Charlie would have made them laugh, would have laughed when they expected him to. And Charlie would have spoken up for Lim and brought him into the fold.
But now Charlie was in stupid Nebraska and all Lim could do was hang around the fringes, hoping that the perfect moment would get tired of waiting and announce itself. Then, Lim could take the cue and announce himself.
But the perfect moment was being a real jerk about the whole thing and refused to show up, so it became more and more apparent that if Lim wanted to get something going, he would have to do it on his own.
It was Friday recess when Lim finally found the strength. He had spent the night before discussing his intent with the monsters.
“So you need to make a good impression on these guys, huh?” said the Tentacled Thing.
“What you should do,” said the rat with thumbtack-teeth, “is bring them the severed head of a goat, as an offering.”
“Where am I going to find a goat in time for school?” Lim had asked.
“Just be friendly and honest.”
“Polite goes with friendly,” said the original idea-haver.
“Yes, necessarily. It’s a fundamental part.”
“It’s a factor, maybe.”
“It’s damn definitive!”
“So’s your face!”
“You take that back!”
And then the two began to beat each other to death.
“Valid points, all,” said Bludstab. “The important thing, remember, is to be confident.”
“But I am not a confident person. At all,” said Lim. “That’s, like, the one fact about myself that I do feel confident about.”
“Easy fix,” said the monster. “You just fake it.”
“Pretend to be the best version of yourself. They don’t know, right? So just pretend to be someone who’s interesting and enjoyable to be around. “
He was still turning this advice over in his head as he began to move towards the group. His hands began to sweat.
But the best version of himself was not scared. His best self would not stammer or flinch or say any silly things by accident.
His best self would walk up, stand tall, and speak from the heart, no problem.
This bolder, better version clear in his mind’s eye, Lim strode up to the group and said the words which had so totally paralyzed him before, words which had struck many a fatal blow to his heart.
“Hi,” he began. “I’m Lim.”
Snow had fallen on Thursday, and so a fresh coat of clean white now blanketed the forest. Because of this, the path to the door was fainter than it had been on his previous trips, but Lim knew the way well enough that it was easy to pick their way through the woods.
Still, the new snow reduced their walk to a slow trudge, and Lim had to struggle to not notice the grunts and sighs coming from behind him.
His ears were tense, listening for the tell-tale phrases that would announce his new companions’ desire to be rid of him.
They might say: “I’m tired!”
Or, “I’m bored!”
Or, “He’s got a dungeon out here I’ll bet!”
Or, “I’m cold!”
Or, “He’s in position! Throw him into our dungeon!”
But none of them said any of that.
He spared a glance back.
Derek and Clark were having a half-hearted Snowball Fight/Hit Chowdah in the Face Contest. Chowdah walked on with a smile on her face, utterly unperturbed by the snow that smashed into it. Grub had abandoned the path and was diving behind and around tree trunks and bushes. He would vanish behind one, only to pop up a few moments later in an entirely different spot of the forest. Melissa was behind Lim, her eyes on the shrouded sun. Dim light sprinkled through the crowding black branches.
“What made you want to come out here?” she asked him. “That first day?”
This gave him pause. He had never before been asked why it was that he enjoyed spending time in the woods.
“I don’t know. I’ve always liked the woods. Feels…right. I can’t really explain it.”
“I have something sort of like that.”
“Nah. They give me the creeps.”
“At night, I mean. I once came downstairs to find my sister watching a scary movie with her boyfriend and I sat on the stairs and watched the rest of it. There were ghosts and there were murderers and then the ghosts murdered the murderers so the murderers became ghosts. Haven’t been crazy about the woods at night ever since.”
“Oh. So what, uh, what is your place that feels right?”
“The ocean. I’ve loved it ever since I was a baby. My Mom said that I was always trying to get away from them so I could run in, even when I was still in diapers.”
“DUDE!” The Grub was somehow in a tree above them. He fell out, landed on his head directly in front of Lim and Melissa, only to pop right back up.
“Dude, I found this, ow that kinda hurt but anyway, I found this log back there that’s all frozen and rotted and there are bugs, like a million bugs, frozen right to the bark. “
“So?” Melissa asked.
“Whaddaya mean ‘So’? That’s so weird! It’s like a bunch of ice was just like BAM! BOOM! from outta nowhere and the bugs all got stuck. I’ll bet this place is crawling with cool stuff when it gets warm.”
“It is!” exclaimed Lim. “Last summer, we found a million beetles and salamanders and other great stuff like that.”
“Awesome,” said Grub, sounding dazed at the very idea of a million slimy things. “Better watch out though. Her Majesty doesn’t like talking about grubs or guts or grossness or anything good. She’s lame like that.” He vanished back into the cold, disappearing so quickly and completely that Lim could almost believe he had never even been there.
A tiny siren was pinging in Lim’s brain. He needed to change the subject.
“So…why do you guys call her Chowdah?”
“It’s more fun to say than Chowder.”
“Which is short for Chowderhead.”
“Which is what everyone calls her because, well…”
“Hey guys!” Chowdah called from further down the path. “Hey guys, how come this wood has got so many trees in it?”
Question now answered, Lim and Melissa walked in silence for a little while.
“I don’t, just so you know,” she said, suddenly.
“I don’t really dislike all that stuff that Grub was talking about. Some of it’s amazing. I’ve got this book at home all about the anatomy of, like, sea creatures and fishes and stuff. There are all these drawing of fish that have been turned inside out and the drawings show all the different kinds of goop and it’s fantastic.”
This sounded like perhaps the greatest book ever written by anybody about any subject, ever. He told Melissa so.
“Right? I give Grub a hard time because…OK, look, if I didn’t, all any of them would ever talk about is that kinda thing. And all we’d ever do is play with bugs and roll around in the dirt and as much fun as that is, sometimes I like to do other stuff too, you know? It’s like, your whole life can’t revolve around one thing.”
“I remember when I was a kid, I was always begging Mom to let me have ice cream all the time.”
“Mint chocolate chip.”
“I like mint chocolate chip. Always preferred cookie dough though.”
“I’ve just always loved minty stuff. So one day, Mom said, ‘OK, you can have as much ice cream as you want’ and then I did. I had so much ice cream, Lim. So much. And it felt like my stomach was going to explode. Ever since, I don’t eat ice cream that often. You see what I mean?”
“Too much of a good thing is bad?” he tried.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s something that Grub’ll never get. And speaking of…”
Arcs of snow spray flew into the air, approaching them. Lim imagined a shark fin sticking just over the top of the snow, somehow churning through the frozen earth as easily as water. A shark that moved among the tree roots and breathed the dirt, letting the soil filter through its gills.
But it was just The Grub, sprinting frantically back to the group, kicking up showers of snow with every step.
“I FOUND IT!” he cried.
Lim almost collapsed with relief.
“You have to see this, you guys, have to,” The Grub was panting. “It’s amazing! Amazing! You gotta come see!”
The door was as he had left it, precisely where he had left it. Lim struggled to make himself believe that he had always known that this would be the case.
The gang circled the door, even spaces between each member. Lim stood off to the side, watching as the pack circled its latest prey.
They drew in close. Lim recognized his own path in their every step. He saw his own curiosity as they slowly reached out. He saw his own concern as hands were pulled back quickly, shocked by a non-existent shock that the toucher had too-strongly anticipated. He watched as the group put their ears to each side of the door, and could not help but smile as he saw each one awe at the sound of ancient machines, humming from behind the door.
After each had given the doorknob a shake, they retreated to near Lim. All eyes were still on the door.
Derek had insisted on carrying the key, in case they found any trouble on the way to the door. He produced it, and they lined the key up with the door. It took only a glance to affirm what they already knew: The patterns and colors of the key matched perfectly with that of the door.
A silent question now settled upon them: Who would be the one to unlock the door?
Attempts for a reasonable discussion fell through quite quickly. Grub ended up with a bloody nose and hurt feelings were passed around equally to all parties. It was determined that only a round of Eeney Meeney would resolve things.
After Grub was caught cheating (twice) he was disqualified. The rest continued on while he angrily kicked at tree stumps.
“Eeney Meeney Miny Mo, Catch a Tiger by the toe-”
Round and round the finger went, settling for only a moment before moving forward once more and continuing on until forward became backward.
“If he hollers, Let ‘im go. Out goes Y-O-U-”
The door waited. Even with branches separating it from their view, each child felt as though they could feel a set of eyes watching the proceedings with something like amusement.
“My mother told me to pick the very best one and that is-”
The boughs sighed and a curtain of snow was drawn, only to be opened moments later. And though it parted the world for just a moment, the other side always seemed so very different.
And of course it was Lim.
They fell away as he approached the door. Had it always been as large as it now appeared? Had it always loomed in this manner, its shadow seeming to blot out the illusion of the rest of the world?
It seemed impossible for this to be so. And yet, here it was. And here he was.
The key was in his hand. Was it his hand or the key that was shaking?
He slipped the key into the hole. It fit perfectly, as he knew it would.
Lim could feel the vibration through his fingertips. Some incredible energy was pooling on the other side of the door, pressing against it, desperate to escape the boundaries that had been imposed. The slightest taste of it was crawling out the key hole and coursing through Lim where he stood.
His ears picked up the sound of those giant grinding gears from a place beyond comprehension, the machines waking up to do their destined work at last.
Had he been alone, he might very well have retreated at this moment. He might very well have walked back to his warm house and his soft couch and the promise of hot cocoa when Mom got back from work. Being alone did have its comforts and it did make certain negative traits seem more forgivable, traits like (as a random example) cowardice.
But he was not alone. They were watching him. And he found that he quite liked this group. And it seemed likely that they liked him. Or, at the very least, could come to like him if he gave them reason to. And sometimes, comfort and ease are not the most important things in the world.
Lim thought about being the kind of person who would be brave enough to turn that key.
He turned the key.
The lock struck.