Probably Sort-of Safe
The story so far:
And now…Chapter 9
“I got it! I got it!” Clark yelled as he crashed through the snow. He waved the video camera above his head. “My brother, he’s got a date so he’s been locked in the bathroom for four hours so I snuck into his room and snagged it!”
The kids contemplated the camera.
“I don’t get it,” said Melissa.
“OK, well, you push this button here-”
“No, I mean, I know how cameras work, duh. But I don’t understand why we need to have a camera at all in the first place.”
“Because,” said Derek, “we need to start documenting this stuff. Who knows how long this door thing will stick around and be working? We need evidence and proof and hypothesises and other…science…stuff.”
“Seems like we could have just used one of our phone-” Lim began, only to be cut off by Derek.
“Oh that’s nice,” the other boy said, angry. “Maybe the most amazing thing in the history of amazing things has happened to us and you want to treat it like all the regular and boring crap that anybody can see at any time? Is that it?”
Lim closed his mouth. He assumed Derek’s nasty streak had something to do with Lim’s being new to the group. If he had spoken to Melissa or Grub or Clark, they could have explained that it was in Derek’s nature to want to be in charge of whatever situation was going on. An older brother to two wild boys, Derek had had it impressed upon him from an early age that it was his responsibility to guide other people, whether they had any interest or need of that guidance.
And Derek would and could never admit it, but the situation with the door had deeply unsettled him. The door was something without explanation or logic and that, for people who have an innate desire to understand and control each situation, is about the most terrifying thing imaginable.
And not only was it something he did not understand, but it was something that Derek did not understand that had been discovered and claimed by someone who was not him.
As you can imagine, this was not a situation that he was happy to be in.
He was not a bad person, of course. If asked, Melissa would have talked about the time when she was in the deep end of the pool and was flailing and could not stay above the water, only for Derek to leap in and help pull her out. And The Grub would have mentioned all the times that Derek keeping an eye on clocks and maps had bailed them out of close calls. Clark would have listed the huge number of cool sites and games and movies and songs that Derek had found and shared with the rest.
And Chowdah would have said, “Derek is nice to me. My Mom likes him a lot.” And there is no finer endorsement a human being can hope to have.
So it was not anger or meanness which made him short with Lim. It was old habits (hard to break) and insecurity (hard to escape).
Lim, had he known any (or all) of this, would probably have understood and felt a little bad for Derek and decided to keep quiet until the other boy had really gotten used to him.
Lim did not know all (or any) of these things. So that day in the cold, all he could feel was anger towards the other boy. He silently fumed while the others went about their planning.
“So Clark,” Derek was saying, “do you know how to work that thing?”
“Probably!” Clark declared.
“Good enough. Al lright. Chowdah?”
“We’re going to use you as a human guinea pig. That all right?”
“OK. So first off, I think we should just film the, you know, the basic…thing that this is. Lim?”
Lim stomped over to the door and unlocked it. He had what he considered to be a very pronounced sneer on his face. Over the years, he had spent a good deal of time working on his facial expressions. His sneer was good, his pretty-please smile was coming along, and his ‘No Mom I swear I didn’t eat the cookies it must’ve been that lousy ghost again’ had already gotten him out of a potential grounding after an incident involving a vacuum cleaner, a pineapple, and a shih tzu named Princess Ticklebilly.
Unfortunately, the others were too occupied with planning to notice the sneer, no matter how professionally applied it was.
“Grub,” Derek said, “do you have that rope?”
“Turns out all I had was this jump-rope.” He shook the fluorescent pink handles. “That’ll probably work.”
Derek nodded. “Sounds good.”
“In what way does that sound good?”
“Knock it off Melissa. OK, Chowdah, go ahead.”
“Go ahead with what?”
“Go ahead with going through the door!”
She sprinted off.
While Clark filmed, Chowdah took a diving leap across the threshold. The camera rolled as she went limp on the other side and as Grub quickly used the jump rope to pin her arms to her sides. The camera zoomed into a close-up as her eyes snapped open to reveal hateful orange orbs staring back.
“I got it!” Clark called.
Derek and Grub picked up Chowdah’s small form and carried it back to the door, mindful of her head as she gnashed and lashed at them.
“You’d think,” Melissa observed, “that not every monster would be so nasty about all this.”
Lim was too lost in thinking about how no one liked him to notice that his friend was trying to talk to him.
Chowdah’s body was lobbed through the door. Clark filmed as the giggling girl was unbound and helped to her feet.
“That went well,” said Clark.
“I was a Hideous Monkey Freak!” chirped Chowdah.
“Aw, I love those guys,” said The Grub.
“I ate some bugs!”
“Chowdah!” yelled Melissa. “What am I always telling you?”
“Don’t pick at that.”
“Don’t put my finger in that.”
“Don’t eat that.”
“So why do you?”
“Because bad things shouldn’t be so delicious if they’re going to still be bad things!” argued Chowdah.
“So who does what next?” The Grub asked.
“I think,” said Derek, “I think that the next thing to try out is to see if two people can use the door at the same time. So, Chow-”
The little girl was already sprinting in the direction of the door.
“Monkey Freak!” she screamed and charged through. She came up howling. Derek and Melissa chased after her with the jump-rope. A diving tackle finally brought her down.
“Ouch,” Lim said, shocked out of his angry stupor. “That seemed painful.”
“No worries,” said Clark. “Chowdah is basically indestructible. Once, in the library, she brought down an entire oak bookcase right on top of her head. Luckily nothing was broken.”
“On the book case?”
“On Chowdah,” specified Grub. “Her head went right through the back of the shelf. She’s like a Looney Toon with adamantium.”
Derek called over. “OK, Grub, you go through!”
“It’ll only be for a minute!”
“A minute of awesome!” He took a running dive over the threshold and was then tackled by Derek.
Grub’s eyes were blood red.
“So,” panted Melissa, “it does work with more than one person. I wonder how many we could get through before it busted.”
Derek said, “The problem would be on this side. We can’t have, like, fifty kids all with monsters in their heads, running around and smashing all the stuff.”
Clark filmed it all.
“OK, let’s move this along.”
Grub was thrown across first. Then Chowdah. “No fair!” they yelled as they sat up.
“We told you it would only be for a minute,” said Melissa.
“OK, next,” said Derek. “I think we should have two people go through at the same time.”
“We just did that,” said Clark.
“I don’t mean one person going and then someone going right after. I mean two people going through at literally the same time.”
A hush fell over the clearing. The entire venture was dealing with the unknown, but what Derek was suggesting was like stepping into the unknown with your eyes closed and hands tied behind your back.
He seemed to sense the caution that had invaded the group and tried to bolster them.
“What?” he said. “It’ll be fun, come on. So let’s do it. Who’s going to be go?”
Lim was surprised to hear his voice. “Your idea. You go.”
A look of panic tried to appear on Derek’s face but he wrestled it down. Now that the challenge was out there, there was no way for him to walk away without permanently damaging the way the others viewed him. But he didn’t have to let Lim get away with a victory.
“Alright,” he said, showing his teeth. “But only if you come with me.”
The two boys eyed each other for a long time. Somewhere, a lonely tumbleweed shook its head, mournful of the lost opportunity.
“OK,” said Lim. His voice had a steel to it that his pounding heart was envious of.
The rest of the group looked nervous. As Derek and Lim approached the door, the others began to protest, saying things like, “Come on now,”, “Take it easy,”, “Let’s think it through,” and other such phrases they knew from when parents had tried to talk the children down from some insane new danger.
The advice had been ignored then. It was ignored now.
“On the count of three,” said Derek. “Unless you’re scared.”
Lim lit a fire in his eyes and matched the stare of the bigger boy. He was more than a little surprised to see more than a little bit of fear swimming in Derek’s pupils.
He realized that he could stop it. He could laugh it off or pretend to get angry and push Derek through so that the experiment would be avoided. He could act really scared, and all that would happen is that they would joke around with him for a couple hours and then move on to some other topic.
But there’s a certain meanness that comes into the quiet, lonely types. It’s a meanness borne of how slow they are to share themselves with other people. When they do, when the quiet do choose to open their mouths, or the solitary choose to greet a stranger, it is an act laden with almost unspeakable tension. And if things go poorly enough to make the lone person regret that choice, it adds a layer of armor to their hearts. More and more layers are built up, until the heart is encased in a chamber untouched by any sunlight and the lone person has become a lonely one, one who has forgotten the joys of companionship and trust.
Lim was too young to be very far along in this process. But he had been hurt enough times that his heart was wrapped up quite tightly. And though he was not a mean boy, there was meanness in Lim, the depth of which he could not fathom. It was when that hidden, protected heart of his was poked and prodded that the meanness came out.
He began the countdown. “One.”
Derek’s pupils trembled. There was a pleading note in his voice. “T-two.”
“Guys, I think this is a bad idea. I, me, thinks this is a bad idea. So, so maybe we re-think this, yeah?” called Grub.
“Three,” said Lim and they took a step.