A Midsummer Night's Walk
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The dirt and sand of the gravel road crunched beneath my feet. It was late, likely close to eleven at night, and I was star gazing. It really is beautiful out in the country, with no cities to pollute the sky with car horns or streetlights. Just peaceful and spectacular skies and crisp, cool air. On either side of this gravel road were fields, recently reaped of their golden kernels. The corn fed this area, not only literally, but to a degree spiritually. You talk to any farmer, and they will claim to be men and women of God, but they worship the grain. Why else would they care for their produce so? They worship it, as it is their salvation. Yes, the corn is their Messiah, at least around here.

I contemplated this idea and others as I continued on my way. After a time of walking in silence, I encountered an old, beat-up truck rumbling down my path. I moved to the side of the road and raised my hand in greeting as it passed. I heard a blast of country music from within, and the driver blinked his lights in acknowledgment of me as they continued past.

I passed an old homestead at this point. Years ago, it had been owned by an old tiller named Arnold, but he passed soon after I returned to the area. As a child, myself and my brother would sneak onto his property and explore his big old barn, despite the repeated attempts of our parents to get us to stop said activity. I suppose they had good reason, what with the majority of the planks having been rotted through and ready to collapse at any point. Not to mention that two young boys could get in enough trouble without a dangerous barn to explore. Regardless, explore that barn we did, and whenever old Arnold would catch us, he would just shake his head and say, "Damn you boys gon' get yourselves right messed up one of these days." Then the old man would take us into his creaky blue farmhouse and make us hot chocolate and homemade popcorn.

Now the old barn was a pile of debris and rubble, and the farmhouse stood dead and empty, with only a couple of windows still having glass. Arnold used to be very particular about caring for his lawn, but it had long since become overgrown and messy. He would have been heartbroken to see the place in such a state, but after he had died a tornado had passed nearby, causing the old rotting timbers of the barn to finally give way and collapse. So, I wept for him. Such a peaceful, almost reverent place fallen to ruin. Old Arnold was in the ground, and so was everything he had worked for his entire life. But time marches on, uncaring.

I stopped a moment to look around the old property, narrowly avoiding cutting my shin on an old rusty blade of some farm equipment. Luckily, the night was brightly lit by the Milky Way and the Moon, so I had a good view. I walked around the back of the flaking blue house to see what me and my brother had called the Hanging Tree. We had liked to play cowboys as small kids and pretended this tree was a gallows. In reality, it was a good old apple tree, which had often provided a snack when we found our way to old Arnold's property. I looked at the tree now and plucked an apple from its boughs. I took a bite and then immediately spat it out. Too sour. Guess it wasn't ripe enough. The time of Arnold's farm had passed, yet the fruit was not ripened enough to eat.

I moved on from old Arnold's homestead and continued my odyssey down the gravel road. I continued to think of my brother, and of all the times we shared. He was my senior, by two and a half years. As children, we were inseparable. We played games, ran races, and talked endlessly. Of course, he participated in the requisite amount of bullying that an older brother must put upon his younger brother, but we were still the best of friends. When he entered middle school, things changed. He became more distant and temperamental with me. I understand now that it was due to hormones and puberty, but this permanently fractured our relationship. Even as we both eventually moved into high school, he and I never had the same relationship we did as children. Perhaps that is why I had found it so hard to come home, especially after he became sick. We were severed, emotionally, and both of us were too proud to overcome childhood grudges. Fools, both of us.

A way down the gravel road, I encountered some woods and a fenced in pasture. Every morning on my way to school, I would pass this pasture and look to the horses as they ran around in circles. Now, there were no horses, as the owners of the pasture got too old to take care of them. They both had been admitted to an assisted living facility a couple of years after I left home for what I thought was for good. I have no idea if those folks are still alive or not. I'd assume not. They were the grandparents of a girl I used to know in high school. To my knowledge she got into a bad place with an abusive husband. Last I heard, she was now living in California as a single mother of four. I wish her well but hoping for such a thing is often very disappointing.

The woods were not owned by these folks, in fact neither I nor anyone else in my family was quite sure who they belonged to. Maybe calling them woods was too generous. It really was just a dense thicket of trees surrounding a small crick that broke the monotonous fields of the area. A concrete bridge ran over this crick, though I remember a time where it was this rickety old steel thing, likely not up to code. It had been renovated back when I was still an elementary child. Though the old rickety bridge may have been a disaster waiting to happen, I can't help but recognize how much charm it had when compared to the new thing. It was a product of an older time, with a width barely wide enough to let a pickup through and red rusted trusses with traces of black paint, the height of a grown man. The new bridge was cold, unfeeling. It was just smooth concrete, like every bridge in every city in every state. A worthless thing, a piece of infrastructure without any sort of beauty to it. Functional is all well in good, but what would life be if everything was right angles and matte grey?

Within the dense thicket of tree was the remains of a house. This house might be the most important place to me on my walk. When I was a senior in high school, I snuck out of my house late one night. I wandered my way down these gravel roads to this admittedly dangerous house. The majority of the building was gone, with only one wall intact and a portion of another standing. The brick chimney also remained, but otherwise it was in shambles. With me, I brought a telescope I had saved up for four months. I set it up there at that ruined house, likely trespassing on someone's property, and stargazed for hours. I specifically remember looking for Orion, though I think it was not in the sky at the time. I wanted to see Betelgeuse, a red giant star which I had read could go supernova at any time. I wanted desperately for it to do so in my lifetime, as when it went Earth would have another body in the sky close to as bright as the moon for a couple of weeks before it began to dim. Alas, the universe disappointed me that day. There was still some structure to the house when I visited it in my youth, but now there was naught but a pile of bricks and beams, more rot than timber. I spat on the road beside the old place before moving on. Moving on.

I trudged my way across the cold concrete bridge and away from the thicket, thinking about the hundreds and hundreds of times I had driven down this gravel road. I thought of the time when I had brought my first girlfriend to my house. We decided to stall for a while and just drove around the countryside, blasting country music and singing along poorly, although both of us were rather skilled singers. The sun was bright that day, almost too bright. The sky was so blue, you could almost expect it to instead be a ceiling of water descending upon the earth. That was one of the happiest moments in my life. Spending time with someone I loved, just driving, just being. That relationship didn't last past the summer of senior year. I have no idea what happened to her.

I reached a crossroads. Bisecting my gravel road was a two-lane country highway. To get to the nearest town of use in any decent amount of time, you would take this to a more mainstream highway off to the West. I contemplated turning around, or even heading down the highway. Instead, I continued walking straight down the gravel road, across the highway. I was not familiar with this part of the road. It seemed to continue for an infinity as I went along the rough grass edges of the road, kicking rocks along to entertain myself. I turned to see how far I had come and saw only continuing road and field behind me. The thicket of trees around the crick was out of view, as was the highway. I was fully in unfamiliar territory.

A cloud seemingly appeared from nowhere and covered the Moon, dimming the night significantly. A strong chilled breeze blew across the plains, causing me to pull my jacket closer. I thought I felt a slight vibration in the ground, but I figured I was just tired. Regardless of what I figured, I soon hear a rumbling of thunder in the distance, and the wind began to blow stronger. It had been a good twenty or so minutes since I had passed any sort of shelter, whether that be a building or even a tree. It was as though I was in a purgatory, an endless expanse without end or detail. The rain began spattering onto my bare head. I thought of turning back, but then in the distance, I saw some sort of structure.

The road abruptly ended at a field, which it should not have. If I remembered correctly from maps I had seen, this road was supposed to end in an intersection with a minimum maintenance road. But here it ended at a grass-covered ditch that led into the field. I saw a lone figure resting in the bare, harvested plain. It looked to be an old blue portable outhouse, a porta-potty, like the ones they used to put out during detasseling season. I myself never participated in detasseling, but I had seen enough of the porta potties around. The thunder and lightning approached quickly, and the rain and wind began to come at my body faster and faster. I decided I didn't really have another option, so I ran up to the porta-potty and entered, closing the door behind me.

The porta-potty was actually quite a bit larger than most of the ones I was familiar with. It might have been about twice the size of a standard one. There was a toilet, urinal, a hand sanitizer dispenser, and a mirror. I stared at myself in the dim light, getting better glimpses as the lightning outside flashed through the cracks and seams of the porta-potty. I needed a haircut and a shave. My glasses were rather messy, due to the dust from the road, though they also had watermarks from the rain. I removed my glasses from my face and cleaned them as best I could on my dark green sweater. I'd changed a lot since I was home the last time. Besides the need for a haircut, I also had a subtle red streak through my dark hair and a tattoo now adorned my forearm. I would say college and the years after changed a lot, but I really was the same person within. I still believed the same beliefs, loved the same loves, and prayed to the same God. Everything else had changed more than I had. Everything else died while I persevered.

My father taught at a local community college. What this meant is that I could get free classes and get an associate degree, saving obscene amounts of money. But I hated it here. As soon as I graduated, I was counting the days I would leave and go to college at a university over three hours away. I really wanted to go, but I also hurt deeply. I would be leaving behind my family, which wasn't necessarily the worst, but I'd also be leaving behind my friends that I had grown up with. These people had become my brothers and sisters. The girl I was fond of wouldn't be coming with me either, as she was in the grade below, so we broke up. Despite all of this, I left anyway. Even though I was wasting money doing so. Even though I was leaving behind so many people I cared about. But I had reasoned, I would see it all again when I returned. It would remain like it was supposed to.

In college, I learned. I learned everything one could about math, design, and physics. I learned to build bridges, harness the power of the sun, and create that which all thought impossible. Then I came back home. I saw everything was the same. Once again, I returned to college and came home. Everything remained, as it had before. I left again, but when summer came once again, I didn't go home, taking it for granted that all would once again remain until I did. I stayed with an aunt in the city where the university was. I graduated from college, and I still didn't return. It wasn't until years after I left that I finally returned. And I found everything different.

I returned from the recesses of my recollections and noticed that I no longer heard the storm outside. No wind, rain, or thunder. I looked back to the mirror, but everything was now black. Blacker than black. It was as though I were in a void. I reached out and felt the wall, scooting my way over to the door. It would not open when I tried the handle. I came to the point of shoving the door to try to open it until finally, I kicked it with all of my might, and it blasted open. The void that I assumed to only be within the porta potty stretched beyond into an infinite void before me. The thought crossed my mind that I may have gone blind but reaching into my jeans pocket I pulled out a lighter which successfully ignited. My little island of light only extended to the interior of the porta-potty. At the threshold of the door, there was only an onyx wall.

Onto my knees, I dropped and crawled to the edge of the threshold. I stuck my hand out, feeling for the earth, but found empty air. In fact, I reached down under the porta-potty and felt the plastic bottom. What I had originally thought to be a weird coincidence of sudden darkness now had become so otherworldly that I began to pray. I sat in a fetal-like position on the floor of the porta potty for a number of minutes, closing and opening my lighter, hoping for something, anything to change. But it didn't. I prayed to God and Jesus to see me safely from this unusual Hell, but no salvation was offered. Not that I was surprised. I had returned to my faith after a long period away, but I was not so delusional as to think that a holy being would descend and solve my problems. No, I am more self-reliant than that. I began to feel the call of nature, and I thought to myself how lucky I was to be able to relieve myself. It is always good to count one's blessings in a tough scenario. I took care of my business and set about trying to figure out what I could do.

The void was cold, colder than the night air had been. Regardless, I removed my jacket and began cutting it into strips with a pocketknife I kept on me at all times. My brother had given it to me. One of the strips I had cut I rolled into a ball, which I tossed into the nothing beyond the door, just to see what would happen. Of course, nothing did, and this maddening constancy and equilibrium continued. I fashioned a rope from the other strips, maybe ten feet long. It certainly was not strong enough to hold my weight, but it didn't need to. I tied one of my shoes to the rope and tossed it out, slowly lowering it in hopes of finding a floor or some sort of ground. I ran out of rope before finding that floor. I yanked the rope back up, returned my shoe to its proper position, and lowered the rope again, though this time I tied the end in a loop, thinking that maybe I could catch it on something. After a few moments of dangling, I lost grip, and the rope slipped from my hands and into the void.

Out of ideas, I took back out my lighter and attempted to look all around the porta-potty, in hopes of finding something. Nothing came up, and as a consequence, the lighter flame began to dim. I didn't have much time before it would be me, myself, and the darkness. I heard a thump on the roof of the porta-potty. I grabbed my knife off of the floor and held it tightly. I heard careful, purposeful steps crossing the roof and stopping above the doorframe. My heartbeat was intense and fast, like the hoofbeats of racing horses. The light was dim, but I saw two bony white hands with large, gnarled knuckles gripping onto the door frame. A bald white head slowly pulled itself over the edge of the door frame, perfectly perpendicular and upside down from the floor.

The grin appeared. A grin so mirthful and full of life and love that one should be ecstatic to see it at a Christmas party. But here, here in this Hell of Hells, the grin only graced me with fear and loathing. The thing did not stop at the grin. It continued to pull itself over the door frame, showing that it was wearing the void like a cloak, and only its hands and head were visible. I now felt disgust, nearly to the point of vomiting. I know not why, but the creature was vile in every conceivable manner. I thought the descent would halt once it had extended its arms fully, but it continued and continued until the upside-down man stood in my doorway, grinning at my feet while I grimaced looking at its face. When I stared at it for too long, it seemed to disappear, but the moments right before and after I blinked it was vividly there. I thought I had heard raspy breaths from it, but now I couldn't hear anything over the raging pattern of my beating heart.

Moments passed in this stalemate, with neither of us moving. I thought of all manner of horrors that this entity may enact upon me. I had so vivid a vision, I questioned whether the phantom had set it upon me. I saw in my mind's eye the thing reaching out its mutated hands, gripping my chin, pulling the upside-down face close to mine. Then the smile opened, and I felt suction on my face. First, my pores were emptied of dust and grime, then the sucking continued, drawing out blood. And it continued to draw blood until I was only a husk and my eyes hung out of my skull on their threads. The blood and grime coalesced into a ball in front of the thing's open mouth, and it consumed it.

I emerged from my vision in a frighteningly cold sweat, seeing no change in the position of the apparition. My lighter was growing darker. I made a move toward my tormentor and attempted to stab it. My blade simply passed through the void that made up its body, but as I drew away, it crawled up my body, becoming horizontal. The smiling face stared directly into mine and I stood with my back against the mirror, one hand with a knife and the other with my dying lighter. My knife slipped out of my sweat-slicked fingers. The thing tapped the tip of its index finger on my lighter which promptly ran out of fuel. I was plunged into darkness, and I felt no presence of the thing that had been torturing me. Maybe I had never felt the presence at all. It was so dark that my mind was beginning to fill the spaces in with swirling colors, bright and flowing. Moving in recognizable shapes. A hand. A face. But no. I was alone, truly alone. I was alone, in a porta-potty, with nothing. Nothing but a void, and a door. I made my way to the edge. I drew a breath and thought I could taste the cool breeze of home. I took one more step.

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